Mathematical Geophysics Opinion

Collaboration to Enhance Coastal Resilience

Integrating models from the social and natural sciences could generate a more holistic approach to climate change response planning in coastal communities.

By , C. Reid Nichols, Arthur G. Cosby, and Christopher F. D’Elia

The effects of climate change pose numerous threats to communities living near the coast. Rising seas, increased storm frequency and intensity, evolving societal pressures, urbanization, and altered river discharge threaten these communities with inundation, land loss, water quality degradation, disease, and loss of livelihood.

One immediate and urgent duty of scientists is to develop strategies for responding and adapting to likely future scenarios of natural and societal change in response to climate change. Field and remote sensing observations, numerical models, and education must ultimately advance human and ecosystem resilience on global, regional, and local scales.

Agencies charged with planning and risk assessment for coastal communities could benefit from the integration of models from the social and natural sciences. Such collaboration could address risks to human health and safety, as well as risks to such industries as tourism, fisheries, agriculture, and shipping.

A Consortium for Coastal Resilience

Because coastal communities and environments are among the most severely threatened, there is a clear need for a consortium for coastal resilience, consisting of interdisciplinary scientists and a supporting cyberinfrastructure with emphasis on understanding and predicting the future behavior of coastal systems.

The vision is to develop viable long-range resilience programs that enable continually evolving adaptive management strategies. The goals should be to integrate natural and social sciences and to create a cybersupported network of scientists, modelers, engineers, educators, and stakeholders from academia, federal agencies, local and state governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the private sector.

Improved resilience of low-income communities in flood-prone areas should be a priority. Model projections and remote sensing can support local governments in assessing resilience, planning for humanitarian assistance, and identifying the most vulnerable communities, environments, and facilities.

For example, models can now predict “street by street” flooding probabilities using detailed topographic data. One immediate objective, which could be accomplished in the near future for specific localities, would be to combine patterns of social vulnerability (e.g., low incomes or low mobility) with predictions of inundation for various scenarios of sea level rise and storm surges. This would represent a valuable contribution to regional disaster planning.

Data from smartphones, social media, and geographic information systems should enable more-effective real-time decisions for guiding the deployment of emergency and rescue resources during future disasters.

Collaboration Strategies

The collaboration strategies and methodologies that we build must be as rigorous as the models and understanding they are designed to facilitate. The ongoing Coastal and Ocean Modeling Testbed (COMT) is one successful example [Luettich et al., 2013]. COMT has facilitated extensive collaborations among numerous universities and federal agencies. It includes a comprehensive suite of numerical models for predicting natural coastal phenomena, particularly coastal inundation and estuarine and shelf dissolved oxygen dynamics. However, COMT has not yet integrated social sciences or societal processes.

Collaborations should include rigorous observational data and model standards, open-source model code, and effective communication with a hierarchy of scientists and stakeholders. Educating the general public, particularly lower-income and undereducated communities, about hazards and how to respond to them is a critical, but commonly overlooked, facet of outreach to enhance resilience.

The Coastal and Environmental Research Committee of the Southeastern Universities Research Association (SURA) identified the need for a consortium for coastal resilience. The roughly 100 interdisciplinary participants at SURA-sponsored workshops held in 2014 and 2015 consider the program to be a high priority (more on this below). Attendees agreed that a key role for the consortium should be to provide a virtual environment that connects modelers, other scholars, field empiricists, and educators from various disciplines and institutions worldwide.

A cyberinfrastructure supported by the consortium can provide the playing field for advancing collaboration. The world of “big data” offers ever-widening opportunities for collaboration, communication, and informed decision making.

Measuring Our Success

If government officials and the general public are to accept the model predictions coming from this consortium, program performance metrics will be critical. This principle will guide the progressive evolution of the consortium.

To start with, it will be important to quantify the degree to which participating scientists and stakeholders agree with regard to strategies for moving forward on the decadal time scale and how best to integrate across disciplines. Measures of effective collaboration may include the production of interdisciplinary, multiauthored publications and disaster response plans.

The extent to which operational agencies adopt, or are influenced by, the collaborative products is another important metric, as are improvements in the ability of the scientific community to gain the trust of politicians and officials. To ensure that the consortium is rigorous and objective, an independent expert advisory committee should provide advice, analyses, data standards, and collaborative integration of coastal resilience science and technology in various coastal regions.

Outlining Future Priorities

Workshop attendees learn about flooding at the Stranahan House in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The extent of flooding during times of spring tides, when the difference between high and low tides is greatest, will increase as sea level rises. On 26 October 2015, attendees at a Southeastern Universities Research Association Coastal Resilience Workshop learned about recurring flooding at the historic Stranahan House in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., during perigean high tides (“king tides,” when the Moon is closest to Earth). This wood frame house on the banks of the New River is the oldest surviving structure in Broward County. Credit: Reid Nichols

To identify the priorities, science requirements, and long-term goals of the consortium, SURA hosted a workshop, Understanding and Modeling Risk and Resilience in Complex Coastal Systems, in Washington, D. C., on 29 and 30 October 2014. The goal was to identify the most critical issues in assessing future risks, vulnerabilities, and resilience of complex coastal systems that involve interdependent social and natural factors. A second workshop, held 27–29 October 2015 in Broward County, Fla., focused on ways that natural and social scientists can help address the operational needs of local government entities.

A recent white paper integrates the outcomes of these two workshops with a literature review of the current thinking on elements of coastal resilience [Wright et al., 2016]. The coastal resilience workshops will continue to promote collaboration and innovation in threatened coastal regions.

Follow-up workshops are expected to focus on the Middle Atlantic Bight and Chesapeake Bay, the northern Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Delta, and the South Atlantic Bight regions. Scientists, government representatives, NGOs, and stakeholders interested in participating in future workshops are invited to contact Don Wright ([email protected]) or Reid Nichols ([email protected]).

Preparing with Knowledge

In the decades ahead, changes in climate, relative sea level rise, ecosystem structure and function, river discharge, and the intensity and duration of storms and attendant coastal erosion are likely to accelerate the alteration of natural and built coastal environments. New understandings and improved computer models, combined with the advent of a data-intensive society and high-performance computing resources, should enable the scientific community to make giant strides in developing the essential forecasting abilities to prepare for these changes.

But progress will depend on how effectively scientists work together. Only a community that embraces all relevant disciplines and draws from many universities, federal agencies, NGOs, and industries can address the complexity of the coastal realm. Thus, the future must involve the broadest collaboration possible.


Luettich, R. A., Jr., et al. (2013), Introduction to special section on The U.S. IOOS Coastal and Ocean Modeling Testbed, J. Geophys. Res., 118(12), 6319–6328.

Wright, L. D., C. R. Nichols, A. G. Cosby, S. Danchuk, C. F. D’Elia, and G. R. Mendez (2016), Trans-disciplinary collaboration to enhance coastal resilience: Envisioning a national community modeling initiative, 30 pp., Southeastern Univ. Res. Assoc., Washington, D. C.

—L. Donelson Wright and C. Reid Nichols, Southeastern Universities Research Association, Washington, D. C.; email: [email protected]; Arthur G. Cosby, Social Science Research Center, Mississippi State University, Starkville; and Christopher F. D’Elia, School of the Coast and Environment, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge

Citation: Wright, L. D., C. R. Nichols, A. G. Cosby, and C. F. D’Elia (2016), Collaboration to enhance coastal resilience, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO057981. Published on 29 August 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0