Reflections on coastal resilience

Coastal communities and the coastal marine ecosystems of which they are part are in jeopardy. Superstorm Sandy was one of the most examples of the powerful effects of coastal storms on people, property, and ecosystems in coastal areas. In the face of such storms and other pressures on coastal communities, what can be done? How can we maintain the resilience of coastal communities and the ecosystems they depend on? How do we measure the factors that contribute to social and ecological resilience, and shore them up in areas where they are lacking?

The speakers in today’s AAAS session on Building Resilience of Coastal Communities to Environmental and Institutional Shocks offered a number of answers to these questions and I’m hoping that in this discussion we can tease out more, from them and from other knowledgeable folks here in the room. In the last two hours, we have heard reports of how existing social, economic, and ecological data can be integrated to measure coastal community resilience. We also have heard about other approaches to ecosystem-based science, the type of information needed to inform coastal adaptation to climate change, integrated spatial planning of coastal and ocean spaces, and other efforts underway to ensure that we truly do have both healthy oceans and healthy communities.

Why is this so important? With 53 percent of the U.S. population living in coastal counties according to the most recent census and that percentage expected to grow to 63 percent by 2020, the United States is a coastal nation. And the US is no exception in this regard. More than 40 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas. Coastal communities are economic engines and also highly valued for their cultural heritage and social vitality. Here in Massachusetts, in 1997, the marine economy – including fishing, tourism, transportation, and construction – generated 81,808 jobs and nearly $1.9 billion in earnings. This estimate while dated, is still impressive and does not even include the environmental benefits created by coastal wetlands that provide nursery grounds for fisheries, protection for coastal storms, and other benefits. Globally oceans are estimated to provide employment to 500 million people and generate tens of trillions of dollars in goods and services annually.

The science that our speakers have reported on represent key pieces of the emerging science of sustainability. This is an area that AAAS has long catalyzed. I’m often asked why, as someone trained as an ecologist, I have devoted so much of my energy the last five years in collecting social science data in Mexico and elsewhere. My answer is simple. If we are to manage human interactions with one another and the coastal and ocean ecosystems of which we are apart, we need to have a clear understanding of the whole picture – not just the biology, not just the economics, not just the institutions, but the whole system.

The benefits of taking this whole system, or ecosystem-based approach to science and management is the topic for another session. Here I want to focus on the science our speakers have presented, and in particular, push each of them to describe what the next steps are or should be in ensuring that they work is truly leading us towards a science and practice of coastal sustainability.

So here are my three big questions for the panel:

1. Healthy oceans contribute to healthy communities and healthy communities contribute to healthy oceans. These linked hypotheses can be tested with the type of data presented today. Do you agree with these statement, can you back it up with data, and why or why not?

2. Many of the reports we heard today deal with static data – collected at a single point in time – and yet we know coastal systems, and the people who are part of them are dynamic systems. What can we do about that – how we reconcile that reality with the limitations of data collection and scientific assessment capabilities?

3. What is next? How do you envision applying your results to advance the science of coastal sustainability? What are the gaps you hope to see filled, through your own work or others?

Remarks presented by Discussant Heather Leslie of Brown University, at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston, MA (2/17/2013)