How coastal cities can build climate resilience as the clock ticks
Why It Matters
Coastal cities are booming centers of economic prosperity, leisure, and commerce: Some 40% of the world’s population resides within 60 miles of a coastline, and nearly half of Americans live in coastal counties.
Yet coastlines have never been a more dangerous place to be.
In 2020, the global sea level set a record high: 3.6 inches more than the 1993 average, when satellite measuring began. In many locations along the U.S. coastline, high-tide flooding is up by 1100% since 2000. Meanwhile, 40% of coastal residents are also part of vulnerable communities: the old, the young, and the poor.
At the recent MIT Water Summit, an annual event hosted by the MIT Water Club, advocates and experts detailed ways coastal communities can become more resilient.
Coastal resilience is a key environmental mitigation strategy as the disasters of Hurricanes Harvey, Ida, Katrina, Maria, and Sandy still haunt coastal areas. And it makes good business sense, given that most companies maintain a shoreline presence: 2.5 million U.S. businesses are in coastline counties, employing 37.1 million workers.
“Businesses are noting [coastal changes] because their insurance rates are going up,” said Ann Michelle Morrison, a principal scientist at Exponent, an international engineering and scientific consulting firm. Most larger firms have shipping, importing, and oil and gas infrastructure concerns built along coastlines that leave them vulnerable; yet their departure from those areas could have chilling effects for local economies.
Here are four ideas from the summit on ways coastal companies and the communities in which they operate can build climate resilience:
Create nature-based solutions
These are inspired by nature, use nature, or are supported by nature. They’re living solutions underpinned by natural processes and structures designed to address various environmental challenges, while simultaneously providing multiple benefits to the economy, society, and ecological systems. For example, in an urban flood zone, building an elevated park instead of a wall allows water to flow in and back out without causing permanent damage.
Another is the Emerald Tutu, a network of floating, modular mesh mats designed to sop up stormwater and runoff. The project, whose name is a play on Boston’s interlinked Emerald Necklace of parks, took first place in the 2018 MIT Climate Changed competition.
The low-maintenance, biodegradable mats are layered with seaweed and marshland, dampening incoming wave energy and reducing storm surges to prevent flooding. Their modular design makes them easy to reconfigure as needed based on shipping lanes and water traffic, explained co-creator Julia Hopkins, an assistant professor specializing in coastal morphodynamics at Northeastern University.
What’s more, the marshland fits aesthetically with the landscape, which appeals to local stakeholders, Hopkins said. And unlike a wall, such nature-based solutions can change with current conditions and be implemented to meet the urgency of the moment.
That flexibility is a hallmark of nature-based solutions, said University of Massachusetts-Boston civil engineer Paul Kirshen, director of the Stone Living Lab. “The advantage of these nature-based systems is you can build them as you need them. You have this incredible flexibility and adaptation to deal with the uncertainty of the future sea-level rise.”
His research has estimated that Boston, for example, wouldn’t be able to protect its harbor with barriers until 2050, by which time more damage due to rising sea levels will have taken place. Construction could cost up to $11.8 billion. Nature-based solutions are potentially quicker and more economical.
This approach isn’t without problems. Greener areas are more attractive, resulting in escalated rental and housing prices — “driving out the people you’re trying to protect,” he said. And the benefits of modular, adjustable solutions are also difficult to quantify long-term.
Encourage AI-powered aquaculture
Food production is responsible for one-third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with fisheries and aquaculture accounting for 17% of total animal protein consumption, making it the fastest-growing agricultural production system worldwide.
Improving fishing practices, therefore, could have a powerful ripple effect on the environment.
Leading this charge is Tidal, an initiative of X Development (formerly Google X), a “moonshot factory” that aims to tackle onerous problems such as climate change.
The Tidal project leverages artificial intelligence and machine learning to monitor fish with temperature-resistant, underwater 360-degree cameras, giving farmers consistent data about fish health, underwater pollution, and waste. The system can detect and interpret fish behaviors (such as feeding) and model fish behaviors over time — all of which can help farmers make better, more environmentally sound decisions about fish feeding, welfare, and health.
“Today 3 billion people depend upon seafood as their primary source of protein. We believe that sustainable aquaculture is a necessary solution to support our planet’s growing population,” said Tidal engineer and scientist Grace Young, BSc '14.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
“These accurate measurements will allow farmers and authorities to experiment and iterate and ultimately take action to make operations more optimized for things like feed waste, disease treatment, and carbon footprint,” said Tidal ocean engineer Laura Chrobak.
Seaweed farms are also a promising notion: Panelist Loretta Roberson from the University of Chicago’s Marine Biological Laboratory received a U.S. Department of Energy grant to implement designs for tropical seaweed farms. Among other uses, seaweed aquaculture can damp wave energy and protect shorelines, as well as reduce the negative effects of ocean acidification by pulling carbon dioxide out of the water. Feeding livestock some types of seaweed can also reduce the amount of methane they produce.
Seaweed farming can create potential job opportunities for coastline communities, too — in fact, it’s the fastest-growing aquaculture sector.
Make disaster management proactive, not reactive
Current disaster management practices aren’t forward-thinking enough — a deficit that carries immediate consequences for coastal cities in an emergency.
“Traditionally, we’ve relied on the historical data in emergency management to assume what our future risk will be. We can’t do that anymore,” said Samantha Montano, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and author of “Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis.”
“We have to incorporate future projections from climate change into those risk assessments, which is a difficult thing to do,” Montano said. “It’s particularly difficult at the local level, where you don’t have the expertise.”
Being able to project where disasters will happen is essential to properly allocating funds, she said. Now, we’re stuck in a reactive spiral where innovative ideas spring up in the wake of a disaster and then fizzle without long-term planning.
“There is a lot of money that comes flying at a community when a disaster happens, but that money goes really, really quick,” she cautioned.
The reactivity issue extends to first responders, as well as local, state, and federal officials, who Montano believes should be open to mining social media for important data as it unfolds in real time.
“Emergency management agencies get a lot of their information from what people are posting on social media,” she said. “People are not waiting for official search-and-rescue teams before they start digging through rubble. They’re posting information as it happens.”
Formalizing social media platforms’ role during disasters could harness resources more effectively and accurately.
“There could be a lot of room for innovation here, and if those platforms put more resources toward it and more attention toward it, there could be a lot of really amazing things that we could do formally within those platforms,” she said.
Focus on environmental justice
Coastal hazards upend vulnerable communities, but emergency response hasn’t changed to reflect that. It needs to.
“The U.S. emergency management system was created for middle-class white people in the 1950s, and it has not changed that much since then in terms of policy,” Montano said.
"The most severe impacts, the most frequent impacts from disasters, are affecting marginalized communities, communities of color, poor communities across the country," she said. "There’s a complete mismatch between the policies and programs that exist, particularly within FEMA, and the communities that actually need access to that aid.”
New York City, for instance, has a well-resourced emergency management response, where neglected U.S. communities might only have a part-time emergency manager.
“We have a really wide spectrum in these agencies, and that’s contributing to this inequality we see in how these federal dollars, especially, are being distributed across the country,” she said.
Businesses need to consider the eco-justice angle when considering their sustainability goals, and this mindset shift toward eco-justice begins in teaching the next generation of leaders to prioritize the environment while still in school. On that point, Heidi Nepf, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, addressed the community directly.
“Every engineering school, every business school, should be teaching the same as a medical school: ‘First, do no harm.’ Anytime we’re about to [make a business decision], first think about what harm it could cause. And that includes the environment,” she said. “I think that we failed in community education about the environment, which is why the United States is so far behind on this issue.”