Water and the Coasts: Opportunity, Vulnerability, and Risk Management

Water and the Coasts: Opportunity, Vulnerability, and Risk Management

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Executive Summary

Water is simultaneously a resource and a threat. It is of central importance to our socioeconomic wellbeing and it becomes a hazard when there is too much, too little, or if the quality is poor.

Water poses challenges and opportunities throughout the country (and the world). These challenges and opportunities are often acutely evident in coastal areas, which are both incredible national resources and sites of significant vulnerability. Factors like population growth and land use change combine with high impact weather events to threaten coastal communities. Furthermore, many communities that already suffer the effects of high impact weather will face new and magnified risks over the coming decades due to ongoing changes in climate. Effective coastal risk management depends on minimizing vulnerabilities while preparing for and responding to unavoidable hazards.

In this study we identify seven key approaches for advancing coastal risk management. These seven approaches are:

  1. Provide Actionable Information
  2. Prepare and Empower Information Users
  3. Create Decision Support Products and Services that Harness Scientific Advances for Societal Benefit
  4. Build Strong Partnerships Among Stakeholders, Practitioners, and Information Providers
  5. Develop the Next Generation Workforce
  6. Align Roles and Responsibilities
  7. Recognize Linkages and Potential Leverage 


Provide Actionable Information (observations, science, and forecasts)

Coastal risk management can be enhanced through improvements in observational capabilities, science (including research, data assimilation, and models), and computational power.

For any particular weather or climate event, sources of water may include precipitation, tides, waves, sea level rise, storm surge, and rivers. Factors that influence water’s behavior include geomorphology, hydrological connectivity, land use patterns and grey or green infrastructure (e.g., marshes, wetlands, levies, seawalls, and other physical barriers). Forecasts of water quantity and quality are most useful when they account for all sources of water and all factors that influence water’s behavior.

Providing accurate information along the coasts is particularly difficult, both because of observational gaps and lack of interoperability among different modeling approaches (e.g., river forecast, wave, ice, estuarine hydrodynamic, and storm surge models). In addition, it is important to understand the linkages among weather, water, and climate, and to confront the specific challenges that arise over different weather and climate timescales (i.e., minutes to two weeks; two weeks to two months; and two months and beyond).

The natural and social sciences also provide critical information relating to coastal risk assessment and management. For example, the natural sciences help reveal potential human health related impacts and responses of biological systems—including the potential to enhance or disrupt biological resources and the goods and services that they provide to coastal communities.

The social sciences help reveal the socioeconomic implications of weather events, which can disrupt social institutions and disturb biological resources upon which coastal communities often depend in complex ways. Critically, improved integration of physical, natural, and social sciences is necessary for understanding linkages among the physical climate system, biological systems, and socioeconomic wellbeing.


Prepare and Empower Information Users

Stakeholders, emergency managers and other practitioners, policy makers, the media, and the public need to be equipped to use information effectively. This can greatly enhance the value of information.

Formal education at all levels (pre-K through college and graduate training) and informal education are central to the development of people’s capacity to take up and use information effectively. 

Effective communication and stakeholder engagement are also critical in building an informed public that recognizes coastal vulnerabilities, effectively weighs options for risk management, and knows how to respond appropriately when confronting hazards. Public awareness is also a central component of effective governance in a democratic society, as policy decisions and funding priorities ultimately reflect the choices of the people.

Influxes of people and turnover among coastal populations ensure that efforts to prepare and empower information users must be ongoing. Similarly, long periods of time between the recurrence of high impact events require strategies for overcoming complacency and for ensuring that people know how to respond to threats and opportunities in a timely and constructive manner.

Finally, insights from the social sciences can improve our understanding of how to engage effectively with stakeholders, emergency managers and other practitioners, information users, policy makers, the media, and the public. Most notably, though not exclusively, through enhanced risk communication.


Create Services and Decision Support Products that Harness Scientific Advances for Societal Benefit

Information is necessary but not sufficient for effective coastal risk assessment and management. In order for users and stakeholders to take advantage of the information generated by the weather, water, and climate community, that information must be in forms that are easy to access and that meet users’ needs. Products and services that are tailored to user needs make it easier for municipalities to integrate risk management into their decision-making.

Big data and data analytics offer increasing potential to contribute to risk management services and decision support products. To be effective, there is need for a common and straightforward data collection systems, formatting, and user-friendly access. Data (and model) interoperability among information providers and users can enhance uptake and use.

Efforts to reduce repetitive losses may be particularly promising. One option to reduce repetitive losses is to conduct National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)-style analyses following high-impact events. Such efforts could identify factors contributing to losses and potential responses to avoid recurrence. Scenario-based exercises might extend this capability to help identify avoidable risks ahead of time and recommend response options, perhaps somewhat similar to stress tests for banks. Such efforts could inform voluntary buyouts programs and regulatory responses.


Build Strong Partnerships Among Information Providers, Users, and Stakeholders

Common opportunities and challenges exist in determining public, private, and academic roles across the weather, water, and climate enterprise. Understanding differing perspectives, values, and priorities is critical to successful engagement efforts and collaboration. Efforts to manage water resources have the best chance of success when all stakeholders understand and respect differing views, and work to identify shared values that can be advanced together.

There is a need for strong, sustained networks of connected partners working together across federal agencies and among local, regional, and federal organizations and stakeholders. These relationships must be built and maintained over time. That often requires investments of resources to support collaborative structures and relationships. Institutionalizing key relationships, including focusing on effective mechanisms for bringing groups together, can make them more robust in the face of personnel turnover within agencies and among experts and service providers.


Develop the Next Generation Workforce

Future generations will be most likely to thrive if the scientists and practitioners who contribute to coastal risk management are trained in the skills and techniques that matter most. Skills of high value are likely to include expertise in probabilistic modeling, stakeholder engagement, risk communication, integrated risk assessment, data analytics, and the integration of the physical, natural, among others.

A highly skilled and capable next generation workforce combined with the public’s well-developed capacity to use that information would be a powerful combination for helping to ensure that coastal communities recognize vulnerabilities and respond effectively to hazards.


Align Roles and Responsibilities

Conflicts arise among users who are separated across local, state, and federal jurisdictions. This creates a need for aligning responsibilities and jurisdictions, and setting the appropriate spatial scales for management. Regional and national coordination is needed for issues that exceed local jurisdictions

In addition, coastal risk management will be most effective when it acknowledges and addresses the realities facing communities and local governments. This includes aligning incentives for sustainable development practices and accounting for the multiple, sometimes conflicting, priorities in water management. Suboptimal allocations of resources can occur when decision-making responsibilities are narrowly focused, and efforts to deal with a problem at one scale can create new problems at other locations or scales. Though challenging, care is needed to implement solutions that work across spatial and temporal scales and that attempt to account for the needs of all users.

Federal roles with respect to water resource management may include: setting of standards; identifying best practices; providing a repository of case studies and/or lessons learned; helping to ensure and enhance public goods; regulation; and the provision of resources to local and regional efforts. Federal efforts that apply to diverse local communities have greater chance of widespread adoption and success. 


Recognize Linkages and Potential Leverage 

Connecting coastal vulnerability and risk management to other priorities, like infrastructure or jobs, can maximize the effective use of limited resources and help build interest in efforts. Coastal risk management projects that achieve multiple goals may be more appealing to local communities that must meet many high priority economic and social goals. For example, green infrastructure to mitigate coastal flooding may also provide fisheries habitat and recreational assets. Similarly, coastal projects can create local jobs or provide training in new skills.

Finally, challenges and opportunities to coastal risk management are often at least partly similar throughout the world. The United States can both learn from other countries and share our resources and information with other countries (e.g., identify common needs, case studies, and lessons learned).

This AMS Policy Program study is based primarily on two workshops that occurred in 2016 along with a literature review, off-line discussions with practitioners, and additional analysis. Opportunities for further advancement abound and a sustained effort to advance the national discussion on water is needed. The American Meteorological Society’s Policy Program intends a series of follow-on activities to advance an integrated consideration of water and to build a community of practice that includes public, private, and academic sectors that works to provide the information and services needed for managing risks and realizing opportunities associated with weather, water, and climate challenges.