The establishment of the independent, science-based National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Gulf Research Program (GRP) as part of legal settlements with the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill presents a unique and timely opportunity for the creation of a sustained, integrated research program to increase understanding of long-term coastal dynamics. The development of such a holistic effort, with coordination and integration across multiple disciplinary research foci, has the potential to improve human well-being in the coastal zone along the Gulf Coast and around the world. The research agenda defined in the following section leverages the scope and autonomy of the GRP with suggestions for a long-term, integrated body of research that federal and state funding agencies would find hard to achieve due to their mission-oriented natures.
In developing this research agenda’s vision, the committee was guided by three criteria: the independent and long-term nature of the GRP, the research gaps identified in Chapter 3, and the significance of these research gaps at temporal and spatial scales relevant to the Gulf Coast.
In response to the first part of the Statement of Task (SOT) (see Box 1.1), the committee identified key high-priority research gaps that reflect the need for better understanding of critical physical, ecological, and human processes in the coastal system (see Chapter 3). The second part of the SOT asked the committee to define the essential components of a research and development program to address these research gaps. To do this, the committee developed a vision that addresses the critical areas of research. This vision is “to understand and predict the feedbacks and interactions among the physical, ecological, and human components and the resulting evolution of the coupled system along the U.S. Gulf Coast, in the context of both human and climate drivers.” These critical areas encompass the research gaps identified in
Chapter 3 and provide some overarching context for a potential research and development program.
The goal of identifying the critical research areas is to provide the ability to project the future state of the Gulf Coast, given changing environmental stressors and a range of policy options related to mitigation or adaptation strategies. Such a capability will enable improved probabilistic assessments of future conditions (where plausible) and can also be used to identify key scenarios, including those situations when the uncertainty cannot readily be quantified over these timescales. To achieve this goal, a more complete understanding of the interactions and feedbacks between the natural (physical and ecological) and human systems is needed. Three critical areas for research are identified below:
- Critical Area 1: How will coastal landforms and coastal ecosystems along the Gulf Coast respond to rapidly changing conditions (both natural and human induced), especially given the expectation for continued relative sea level rise acceleration?
- Critical Area 2: How will human settlement and economic activity along the Gulf Coast respond to evolving coastal landforms and ecosystems under rapidly changing conditions?
- Critical Area 3: How can improved understanding of both near- and long-term evolution of the Gulf Coast coupled natural-human system be applied to inform stakeholder decisions made at local, state, and regional scales? How does the coupled natural-human system evolve when decision making is updated as scientific understanding advances?
The dominant processes, interactions, and feedbacks for all three critical areas vary by the timescales of the physical and ecological drivers of change for the natural system, as well as the motivators for human response and decision making. While these timescales range from nearly instantaneous to several thousands of years, the relevant timescale for this report (as noted in Box 1.2) is 10 to 200 years, subdivided into near-decadal (10 to 50 year) and decadal-century (50 to 200 year) scales.
As presented in Chapter 2, evolution of the Gulf Coast over a near-decadal timescale (approximately 2030 to 2070) is likely to be dominated by feedbacks and interactions associated with episodic events. These events include not only inundation and wave-driven flooding caused by tropical cyclones, but also smaller magnitude events such as cold fronts, winter storms, and seasonal tides, all exacerbated by sea level rise. Within the same timeframe, Gulf Coast evolution will also be influenced by population growth or decline (including individual and household relocation decisions), regional and national economic trends, local coastal development, natural resource extraction, and ecosystem conservation and restoration initiatives.
Coastal evolution at a decadal-century (50 to 200 year) timescale is likely to be dominated by the influence of relative sea level rise. At this timescale, accelerating sea level rise will lead directly to significant changes along the Gulf Coast, including large-scale alterations of coastal landscapes and ecosystems and potential abandonment of at-risk communities. Global climate change and sea level rise impacts could lead to secondary impacts on the coupled natural-human Gulf Coast system.
Informed decision making and planning through both the near-decadal (10 to 50 year) and the decadal-century (50 to 200 year) timescale will require improved understanding and capability to project relative sea level rise and changes in episodic events, the coastal responses to these processes, and the ways that humans respond to and influence these processes. This type of research and development program will be most successful if it focuses on the interactions and feedbacks critical to evolution of the coupled coastal system; is carried out by collaborative, multidisciplinary research teams; supports comprehensive, Gulf Coast-wide, fully integrated modeling and observational efforts; encourages longitudinal, multi-decadal research; produces easily accessible observational data and model results; and is coordinated at a high level.
Instituting a mechanism for rapid and easy sharing of data and models across program participants and beyond, as well as the use of data assimilation to improve model skill, would also enhance the success and reach of research efforts. Essential components of this long-term research agenda are discussed in turn in the following section. Examples of some programs that include these components are discussed in Box 5.1.
Focus on Interactions and Feedbacks Critical to Evolution of the Coupled Coastal System
A research and development program developed to understand and project future coastal evolution would benefit from a focus on the interactions and feedbacks between and among the components of the coupled natural-human coastal system. While it is very useful to study specific aspects of the natural or human systems (discussed in greater detail in Chapter 3), integrating this research is likely to provide the greatest leaps in understanding.
Collaborative and Multidisciplinary Research Teams
Many of the current gaps in understanding discussed previously in this report (see Chapter 3) are complex and are unlikely to be addressed by a single discipline; rather, collaborative research teams involving multiple disciplines across the natural and social sciences will be needed. These teams are critical for a more integrative understanding of the
societally relevant, user-inspired questions that can drive policy and decision making, but may also require more flexible or innovative approaches to fund and support their research.
Comprehensive, Gulf Coast-Wide, Integrated Observational and Modeling Efforts
Understanding and projecting the long-term evolution of the Gulf Coast will require both observational and modeling endeavors. Coordinating and integrating observational and modeling efforts will significantly amplify the gains that would otherwise be achieved by observation or modeling alone. Observations provide a means for assessing and quantifying how the coastal system is changing through time, while also providing inputs to models and data critical to the development of realistic model parameterizations. Modeling endeavors provide guidance to observational programs regarding critical variables and field relationships to be measured, as well as the ideal frequency for data collection. Model simulations can also provide projections of coastal change that can be compared with longitudinal observations. The integration of observational and modeling programs, ideally through an iterative design, facilitates the development of targeted and adaptive observational programs, as well as the continued development of models and improvements in modeling skill.
Essential components of a coordinated, integrated, and iterative observational and modeling program would focus on furthering the understanding of the long-term co-evolution of the hydrodynamic, morphological, ecological, and human systems, including consideration of wave circulation, sediment transport, coastline evolution, land elevation, vegetative processes, water level, water movement, water quality, demographic changes, measures of economic activity, and human decision-making processes, responses (e.g., abandon, migrate, harden, nourish), and impacts (e.g., on fisheries).
A viable approach to developing a Gulf Coast-wide observation and monitoring program would be to enhance and extend existing monitoring programs, while also implementing new and emerging in situ and remote sensor networks. For instance, new and existing observational programs could be employed with in situ physical and chemical sensors, remote sensing, ecological collections, and data surveys. Data are also needed to assess the impacts of sea level rise and changes in air temperature, rainfall, and rainfall frequency.
Similarly, a Gulf-wide coastal evolution model could build on existing models of specific coastal processes, but also allow for new integrated approaches that examine the co-evolution of the natural-human system. Such a modeling framework would enable projections of coastal evolution as well as broader economic, cultural, and societal changes under different future climate and management scenarios. Ensemble simulations may provide an important means for evaluating the uncertainty of future projections. Data-assimilation techniques can aid in improving model skill and provide guidance for the collection of observations. Implementing ensemble modeling and data-assimilation approaches, where appropriate,
will likely enhance the success of a research and development program designed to address the priority research gaps identified in this report.
Longitudinal and Multi-Decadal in Scope
There are few research opportunities to track change to the coupled natural-human system over long temporal scales, and even fewer opportunities in which targeted modeling efforts can be coordinated to make projections for future decades and validated with repeated observations over time. A research and development program that intentionally takes the long view, iteratively making projections and observing change over time, has the power to transform understanding of coastal evolution and to revolutionize the ability to project coastal change in the face of uncertain future conditions. Longitudinal1 observational, experimental, and monitoring programs can facilitate synthesis efforts aimed at tracking the drivers of change, quantifying patterns, and identifying cascading impacts through the system. Though longitudinal studies are emphasized here, shorter-term (e.g., at the event scale or annual scale) research on physical, ecological, and human processes will also contribute to longer-term understanding. As the Gulf Coast experiences changes in sea level and climate, new questions will emerge regarding the patterns and drivers of change and their impacts on the coupled system. For this reason, a program that is longitudinally focused with integrated modeling and observational components, but that is also adaptive and responsive, will be best poised to provide maximum benefit.
Easily Accessible, Regularly Updated Observational Data and Model Results
To the extent possible, making data publicly available in real time and archiving them in accessible databases will extend the utility of data beyond scientific research and assist emergency managers, planners, other researchers, and decision makers with adapting and responding to changing environments or emerging disasters. Likewise, developing models using open source platforms and sharing newly developed components soon after they are vetted will extend their impact beyond the originators, facilitating their use and application.
Management of a research and development program that includes efforts that are Gulf Coast-wide and longitudinal, contains highly integrated modeling and observational components, and emphasizes interactions and feedbacks between the natural and human
1 Longitudinal studies collect repeated observational data on cross-sectional units (e.g., individuals, groups of people, cities) over time.
coastal systems will require intentional, consistent, and careful administration. Such high-level coordination can be achieved in a variety of ways, including close collaboration across co-developed projects, sharing of project personnel among related projects, and supporting projects that include significant data synthesis and integration aspects. To fully realize the integration of modeling and observational efforts, projects will need to be designed from the start with the intention to integrate, iterate, and synthesize information.
Critical Area 1: How will coastal landforms and coastal ecosystems along the Gulf Coast respond to rapidly changing conditions (both natural and human induced), especially given the expectation for continued relative sea level rise acceleration?
Among the wide range of stressors that affect the Gulf Coast (e.g., changing climate, land use, sediment management), low-elevation coastal landforms and ecosystems are particularly sensitive to the acceleration of the rate of global sea level rise. As discussed in earlier chapters, relative sea level rise rates along the western half of the Gulf Coast will be higher than average global rates due to subsidence. The need to understand both the oceanic component of sea level rise (Research Gap 1) and subsidence (Research Gap 2) with some geographic and temporal specificity is critical to anticipate and plan for effects of rapid relative sea level rise on Gulf Coast landforms and ecosystems.
High rates of relative sea level rise, combined with both historic and potential future reductions in sediment supply (Research Gap 4), threaten coastal landforms and the ecosystems they support. Of critical importance along the Gulf Coast are the evolution and fate of low-lying features, especially barrier islands, river deltas, and wetlands (e.g., swamps, marshes, mangroves), which are often tightly interconnected. Despite a general recognition that large-scale morphological changes are likely, the understanding of—and the ability to predict—where, when, and how changes will occur is limited (Research Gap 6), particularly given the potential impacts of episodic extreme events in combination with relative sea level rise (Research Gap 3) and the effects of human modifications to the coastal zone (Research Gaps 9 to 12). It is critically important to project when, and under what conditions, coastal evolution transitions from being dominated by episodic events (at the near-decadal [10 to 50 year] scale) to being dominated by relative sea level rise (decadal-century [50 to 200 year] scale). For example, under which (natural and human-modified) conditions will barrier islands no longer be able to migrate landward rapidly enough to avoid disintegration and drowning (Research Gap 6) and under which conditions will coastal wetlands no longer be able to sufficiently accrete vertically or expand laterally to avoid becoming submerged (Research Gap 7)? How will sediment supply (Research Gap 4), including the effects of human interventions (Research Gaps 9 to 11) and ecosystem conservation initiatives
(Research Gap 8), affect the evolution of deltas as sea level rises (Research Gap 6)? How will changes to, or the loss of, coastal landforms and ecosystems affect surge-induced flooding, tides, and erosion farther inland (Research Gap 3)?
These types of dramatic changes will transform the natural environment in ways that will influence the built environment (Research Gap 10), patterns of human migration (Research Gap 11), feedbacks between the human and natural systems (Research Gaps 6 and 9 to 12), economic activity, and how, when, and to what extent humans continue to inhabit the Gulf Coast in the future. Understanding and projecting the evolution and fate of Gulf Coast landforms and ecosystems will therefore not only require a better understanding of key processes, such as feedbacks between sediment transport and vegetation (Research Gaps 5 and 6), improvements in coastal zone sediment transport formulations (Research Gap 5), and modeling capability (Research Gap 6), but it will also require identification, exploration, and simulation of the interactions and feedbacks between the natural and human systems that will be most important in determining the future fate of coastal landforms and ecosystems, and therefore, human habitation in this region.
Critical Area 2: How will human settlement and economic activity along the Gulf Coast respond to evolving coastal landforms and ecosystems under rapidly changing conditions?
Anticipated changes to coastal landforms and ecosystems will significantly impact human settlement and the built environment. A deeper understanding of the interactions and feedbacks between the built environment and the natural system (Research Gaps 9 and 10) and between human migration and the natural system (Research Gap 11) can inform models of the coupled natural-human system (Research Gap 12) to improve long-term decision making.
There is considerable uncertainty about the extent to which Gulf Coast residents and stakeholders will attempt to maintain coastal landforms and defend existing infrastructure (Research Gap 9) versus allowing land and habitat loss to occur. Some barrier island communities (e.g., Dauphin Island, Alabama) have been defended repeatedly, and some barrier island settlements may ultimately cease to exist. Some communities could find new ways of living along the Gulf Coast, including potential approaches that currently seem radical, such as mobile rather than fixed residences.
As people migrate (Research Gap 10) or choose to remain in place in response to changes in coastal landforms (Critical Area 1), urban and rural settlement patterns along the Gulf Coast could change. More people may live in cities that have coastal engineering infrastructure, while rural communities without hazard-mitigation approaches may struggle to remain in place, except for communities of means that can afford defensive approaches. Moreover, settlement patterns may change differently in areas of the western and central
Gulf Coast, where relative rates of sea level rise are greatest and social vulnerability is highest, compared with areas along the Florida Gulf Coast, where relative sea level rise rates and social vulnerability are more modest. Major Gulf Coast cities, such as Houston, New Orleans, and Tampa, could see populations becoming more concentrated in areas with relatively higher elevation, although there is uncertainty about whether populations in these cities will grow or contract as a result of migration and other changes along the Gulf Coast.
All of these changes, interactions, and feedbacks will affect the availability of the resource base (e.g., labor, infrastructure, natural resources) that drives key economic sectors. For example, land loss will influence whether energy infrastructure is abandoned, whether it is modified to adapt in place and continues to operate, or whether it is relocated farther inland or to higher elevations. Tipping points, such as extensive marsh losses or large-scale barrier island disappearance, will affect nursery grounds for fisheries, associated fish stocks, commercial and recreational landings, and the fishing and fish processing economy. Coastal land loss will also impact recreational opportunities and the tourism industry, whether directly through losses in rental properties or indirectly through effects on fish stocks or infrastructure that supports tourism. Expected changes in human settlement and economic activity will depend on the timescales of coastal evolution. At the near-decadal timescale of 10 to 50 years, human demographics could change in response to episodic storms and nuisance flooding. The built environment could change with increased adoption of coastal engineering approaches or with modifications to existing housing stock that would allow people to adapt in place. At decadal-century scales beyond 50 years, there is potential for even bigger change. One possibility is large-scale human migration in response to unprecedented relative sea level rise and land loss. Another example is how the commercial and recreational fishing industries would adapt to major losses in nursery habitat if continued wetland loss and relative sea level rise led to the loss of barrier island systems. Moreover, the built environment could change dramatically as new adaptation strategies and technologies emerge and ways of living in the coastal zone evolve.
Critical Area 3: How can improved understanding of both near- and long-term evolution of the Gulf Coast coupled natural-human system be applied to inform stakeholder decisions made at local, state, and regional scales? How does the coupled natural-human system evolve when decision making is updated as scientific understanding advances?
Research carried out under Critical Areas 1 and 2 will enable improved understanding of the most significant interactions, feedbacks, and drivers of change that influence the long-term evolution of the coupled natural-human coastal system (Research Gaps 1 to 5, 7, and 8). Through integrated observational and modeling efforts, it will also improve the overall understanding of how the Gulf Coast coupled system is likely to evolve in the future (Research Gap 6). Research and applications will be required to connect scientific insights
with decision making at the local, state, and regional levels throughout the Gulf Coast. This translation of understanding can help enable iterative decision making that is informed by better understanding of potential short-term and long-term consequences (Research Gaps 9 to 12) and may enable courses of action that were not previously available or considered.
This could entail, for instance, evaluating the potential benefits, costs, and tradeoffs of proposed courses of actions using newly developed coupled modeling systems, applying decision making under deep uncertainty methods (Chapters 2 and 4) to help decision makers identify more robust and adaptive coastal management plans, or using integrated observational data to identify critical tipping points that would suggest switching from one course of action to another. Furthermore, outcomes from research and applications will provide additional insights to guide research under Critical Areas 1 and 2. For example, during the decision-making process, new questions may emerge, and these, in turn, could help inform and prioritize additional basic research pertaining to the coupled natural-human system.
In addition, new scientific understanding can build on the opportunities for communication and outreach identified elsewhere in this report. Sufficient science-based understanding of the risks, benefits, and uncertainties of available options is needed to make reasoned decisions in accordance with values and preferences. Meeting the challenges faced by the Gulf Coast in the future requires that stakeholders have access to useful and usable scientific information (Opportunities 1 and 2 in the following section), and that stakeholders and the public are informed about where such information resides and how to access it. Meeting future challenges also requires creating an environment in which stakeholders and scientists have the resources and incentives to share information (Opportunities 3 to 5) and promote learning. Finally, it entails recognizing limitations and constraints to translating and sharing information and then creating opportunities to overcome these barriers (Opportunities 3, 6, and 7).
Addressing the research gaps identified earlier in this chapter will substantially advance understanding of the coupled natural-human system of the Gulf Coast and help identify salient feedbacks between humans and their environment in the face of climate change. This, in turn, will constitute crucial information for the development of policies toward a resilient and sustainable Gulf Coast. Implementation of research products into actionable policies necessitates effective communication and collaboration between stakeholders and scientists. In Chapter 4, the report identified specific barriers to effective communication. In this section, opportunities to overcome those barriers are presented.
Barrier 1. Financial constraints, information availability, time, and expertise represent a barrier to effective communication. These factors make it difficult for stakeholders to know about, obtain, find, work with, and interpret information and data in a way that allows them to incorporate science into decision making.
Opportunity 1. Targeted funding opportunities that would allow practitioners to obtain data and to hire staff with the expertise and dedicated time to interpret scientific information would facilitate the use and application of available scientific information by other stakeholders. Alternatively, or in addition, the development of a Gulf Coast-wide repository of scientific information managed by well-informed staff who can provide support for stakeholders would be a valuable resource that would help facilitate the incorporation of science into decision making.
Barrier 2. Many scientific products that are intended to help inform decision making are not tailored to stakeholders’ specific needs. As a result, the applicability of these products (e.g., tools, data, information) is not clear to stakeholders, who are then less likely to use them for decision making. Furthermore, many scientific products are not accompanied by sufficient instructions or training on how, why, or when to apply the provided information to the decision-making process; the information thus may go unused or may be applied inappropriately. Additionally, some products may be seen by stakeholders as serving the interests of one group over another and thus may not be seen as appropriate for decision making.
Opportunity 2. When developing products that are intended to inform decision making, scientists should be encouraged to engage substantively with stakeholders from the development to the delivery stage. Such an approach can create scientific products that are more likely to be effective and immediately applicable and may help to allay concerns over whether data are serving some needs over others. To encourage stakeholder involvement, solicitations for research programs might include a requirement for substantive and early engagement. Boundary organizations assist in facilitating this type of engagement, and including incentives for their involvement would further improve communication. The degree to which scientific information is used effectively could be further improved by streamlining and guiding the process by which stakeholders identify and access the information they need. Development of an innovative catalog of products would improve the abilities of stakeholders to access and apply these tools in their decision-making activities. Combining this effort with staff support (see Opportunity 1) would facilitate this process.
Barrier 3. The size and complexity of the energy industry, as well as apparent limitations to information sharing, present a barrier to effective communication between the energy industry and other stakeholders.
Opportunity 3. Create an incentive structure that fosters information sharing between the energy industry and other stakeholders, as well as protocols for how to engage more effectively to facilitate information sharing. This process could be facilitated by a third party such as a boundary organization.
Barrier 4. Limited financial and human resources, logistical complexity, and difficulty in identifying all relevant stakeholders, as well as skepticism, lack of understanding, or lack of trust by one or both parties, can make it difficult for practitioner stakeholders to communicate effectively with members of the general public, including vulnerable populations.
Opportunity 4. Boundary organizations can play a key role in facilitating trusting relationships among community members, practitioners, and scientists, allowing for more effective engagement. Advisory committees comprising members of relevant stakeholder groups, including vulnerable or underserved groups, could serve as representatives for their communities and could help identify strategies for more effective communication and engagement.
Barrier 5. There can be difficulties in establishing two-way information flow between scientists and stakeholders, due to one or both parties failing to see the value of communication. Moreover, there are challenges involved in coordinating diverse entities and individuals for any particular research effort, especially when there are numerous people and groups involved.
Opportunity 5. Role-playing exercises may help ensure that scientists, stakeholders, and others see the value of two-way communication. Efforts can be made to demonstrate the effectiveness and value of community engagement through case studies and storytelling, as a first step toward further engagement. Clear lines of communication, chain of command, and protocols, as well as the involvement of boundary spanners or boundary organizations, may facilitate the coordination of stakeholders and scientists in concerted efforts and will help participants feel involved and useful and have a sense of ownership.
Barrier 6. Scientists’ engagement with stakeholders can be limited by competing demands on time and by the relative importance placed on this engagement, in terms of promotion and professional recognition. In addition, scientists are often not trained in speaking to public audiences or engaging with stakeholders. They may also not be equipped to efficiently transfer knowledge or to provide appropriately tailored information to stakeholders.
Opportunity 6. Strong relationships, collaborations, and clear communication between scientists and stakeholders help produce scientific results that are most applicable to coastal decision making. To help facilitate the development of key relationships, funding programs could provide funds for engagement and knowledge-transfer activities and consider ways to incentivize collaborations between scientists and stakeholders via boundary organizations and other boundary spanners. Notably, there is an opportunity for extension faculty associated with sea- and land-grant programs to play a prominent role in future engagement and knowledge transfer between scientists and stakeholders. There may also be opportunities to offer training for scientists on effective communication and collaboration with stakeholders. Involving university leadership in these opportunities may also increase interest in and support for scientist engagement with stakeholders.
Barrier 7. Scientists working on or wanting to engage in research relevant to the Gulf Coast but who are not from or based there may feel limited by their “outsider” status when attempting to engage with stakeholders. They may have concerns about whether their information and expertise will be dismissed, especially if the information is viewed as contrary to deeply held stakeholder views.
Opportunity 7. Funding programs that focus on Gulf Coast-related research could encourage and facilitate collaborations among regional scientists (especially those with well-established relationships with stakeholders) and those from outside the region with complementary interests and expertise. To progressively build trust and forge strong collaborations, workshops, personnel exchanges, and symposia could be used to initiate communication and discussions among Gulf Coast stakeholders, Gulf Coast-based scientists, and scientists from outside the Gulf Coast who have relevant research interests and expertise.
The physical and ecological systems, people, and economy in the Gulf Coast are inextricably linked. The research agenda presented here could lead to advances in understanding of the natural and human factors that combine, interact, and feed back to influence
coastal evolution, as well as coastal communities and infrastructure. It also underlines the importance of effective communication between scientists and stakeholders in promoting informed decision making in the coastal zone. While changing environmental conditions present challenges to coastal communities, there is also a great opportunity for groundbreaking research and innovation, which may lead to a re-envisioning of what it means to live along the Gulf Coast.