Since 1986, faculty and students of the University of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Sciences have conducted scientific research on the impact of global climate change on the coastal landscapes of Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
This fall, a new initiative led by the University’s Environmental Resilience Institute will expand those efforts by creating a network of policymakers, community stakeholders, educators and researchers from UVA’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, School of Engineering and Applied Science, School of Architecture and several cross-disciplinary research institutes to help Eastern Shore residents use that science to make practical decisions about how they will respond to the changes threatening their communities and their economy.
As rising sea levels and increasing storm activity flood and erode coastal properties, compromise drinking water, wipe out fisheries and infrastructure and diminish the agricultural value of the soil, rural coastal communities that suffer from a lack of access to scientific information and expertise and a lack of capacity to respond to those challenges are being hit disproportionately hard by the long-term impacts of climate change.
In response, the Environmental Resilience Institute, under the leadership of its director, Karen McGlathery, has launched the new Coastal Futures Hub, which aims to increase engagement between scientists and these communities by bringing local leaders and community members together with researchers to define the challenges they face and to produce the data and the knowledge they need to develop practical and realistic strategies for responding to those challenges together.
Funded by a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the initiative is one of only five such projects funded by a new NSF program, called “Coastlines and People Hubs for Research and Broadening Participation,” or CoPe. The program emphasizes bringing multidisciplinary solutions to bear on complex challenges facing the nation’s coastal systems, and encourages scientists to work directly with stakeholders in those communities, especially those from underrepresented segments of the population.
“Virginia is a hot spot of climate change,” McGlathery said. “We have the highest sea-level rise along the U.S. Atlantic coast, and we have more storms that are hitting the coast now than at any previous time in recorded history, and rural coastal communities are a greater risk from climate change because they just don’t have the resources to deal with the challenges that it brings.”
The focus of the Coastal Futures Hub will be to develop an interactive, open-source resource called the Climate Equity Atlas that will provide data, modeling and visualization tools that will empower stakeholders to make effective decisions about how they will adapt to the changes they face. The atlas will also help those communities understand the impacts of existing social and economic factors that will help them make decisions that are equitable for all members of the community.