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Research essential to sustainable coastal living

By Staff | Dec 29, 2010

In today’s struggling economy, funds for basic scientific research are increasingly in short supply. Federal funds that once sustained universities and laboratories are dwindling. As private industry tightens its belt, fewer resources flow to research and development.

Still, coastal researchers work to answer questions about climate change, coastal development, and how to guide future land use and planning.

Just because funding for research wanes, it does not imply that the need for research is any less imperative. In fact, a bad economy makes good science even more crucial to ensure strained resources go to those areas where they can make a difference, rather than be wasted on an unproven or unproductive tangent.

In addition, since more than 50 percent of Americans live within 50 miles of the coast, concentrating scarcer resources where they can benefit the most people is simply prudent.

Here are examples of coastal research with real-world applications one might not immediately recognize:

• Oregon State researcher Peter Ruggiero recently evaluated recent trends of increasing storm wave heights on the U.S. West Coast. If these trends continue, future wave conditions will be substantially different from historic conditions. For example, if past wave heights are used to estimate how high or strong a structure should be but waves in the future are larger, damage could result. Therefore, Ruggiero wanted to create a way to simulate the likely distribution of future wave conditions so designers could evaluate extreme wave conditions a coastal structure or beach might encounter in a storm. Managers can then use this information to identify areas within their community vulnerable to increased flooding or wave impacts. Ruggiero’s research was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a federal agency dedicated to the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere.

• Other recent research has focused on the evolution of coastal “megacities” — cities with more than 10 million residents. High-density urban areas on the coast face special challenges in managing growth and addressing climate change. That many people — some of whom are already living in substandard housing — are not easily relocated if sea level rises. Limited drinking water supplies may be vulnerable to saltwater intrusion. And if storm impacts increase, more widespread effects could result. The World Bank funded a recent study focused on coastal megacities in Asia, where researchers recommended that climate-based risks be considered from the beginning of the planning process — not later — to allow targeted, city-specific solutions to manage growth and reduce vulnerability.

• The National Sea Grant College program (funded by NOAA) currently funds university researchers working on sustainable coastal development (SCD), totaling 25 percent of the agency’s funding budget. For example, in Delaware a Sea Grant researcher is trying to predict how lagoons on the Delmarva Peninsula will respond to changing land use and climate. Other coastal managers can use this model when making decisions about how to reduce pollutants in coastal waters.

Continued funding of scientific research is crucial to planning for the future of our coasts. Research funded by these agencies and others will continue to help coastal managers make decisions to plan for a sustainable future, thereby allowing residents and visitors to enjoy the beauty of the coast long into the future.

For more information on recent coastal research, visit www.asbpa.org.