Research Science and Technology

Researchers collaborate to protect coastal communities from climate change

A NSF-funded project will focus on three sites—Miami, Belize, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—using nature-based solutions such as coral reef and mangrove restoration in combination with engineering practices to mitigate sea level rise, storm surge, and flooding.
In this Sept. 10, 2017, photo, waves crash over a seawall at the mouth of the Miami River from Biscayne Bay, Fla., as Hurricane Irma passes by in Miami. Rising sea levels and fierce storms have failed to stop relentless population growth along U.S. coasts in recent years, a new Associated Press analysis shows. The latest punishing hurricanes scored bull’s-eyes on two of the country’s fastest growing regions: coastal Texas around Houston and resort areas of southwest Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
In this Sept. 10, 2017, photo, waves crash over a seawall at the mouth of the Miami River from Biscayne Bay, as Hurricane Irma passes by. Photo: The Associated Press

The damage was visible all the way from space—254 miles above the Earth.

That’s where NASA astronaut Robert Hines, onboard the International Space Station, snapped then tweeted a photo of the shoreline erosion Hurricane Ian had inflicted on Florida’s southwest coast. All the water dumped on the region had begun to seep into the Gulf of Mexico, carrying with it massive amounts of soil. 

Those environmental scars serve as a stark reminder of the risks coastal communities face from storm surges, floods, and sea level rise—all of which, some scientists believe, are worsening with climate change. 

Now, a team of experts from the University of Miami and elsewhere is partnering on a $20 million National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project that combines coral reef and mangrove restoration initiatives with infrastructure such as seawalls and artificial reef structures to better protect coastal communities from the impacts of a changing climate.

“Coastal zones provide vital services to local communities. But unfortunately, they are vulnerable to the consequences of climate,” said Landolf Rhode-Barbarigos, assistant professor of civil and architectural engineering, who is the lead investigator of the University of Miami’s component of the project, which is called Reducing Climate Risks with Equitable Nature-based Solutions: Engaging Communities on Reef-Lined Coasts. “Safeguarding and rehabilitating our coral reefs and mangroves will mitigate those threats while at the same time support local economies,” he said. 

Researchers will focus their efforts on coastal areas in Miami, Belize, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, implementing and ramping up ecosystem restoration projects in those areas and helping residents to better understand how coral reefs and mangroves help protect their communities. 

“The three sites differ not only in their ecosystems but also in their built environments and social demographics,” Rhode-Barbarigos explained. “We’ll analyze different interventions and figure out what works and what doesn’t work in those areas to achieve better resilience.”

Pilot projects that merge nature-based solutions with engineering components will be initiated, with testing of some interventions being conducted inside the 75-foot-long wind-wave tank at the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science. 

Using studies on the way coral larvae can survive and grow on concrete, Prannoy Suraneni, assistant professor of civil and architectural engineering, for example, will develop and test a hybrid intervention in which cement-based components will be combined with corals and mangroves. “We’ll test innovative, sustainable concretes, as well as concretes that have been deliberately carbonated to lower system pH levels,” Suraneni said. 

Nikki Traylor-Knowles—a cell biologist and assistant professor of marine biology and ecology at the Rosenstiel School, who studies the evolution of immunity, wound healing, and regeneration—will examine how the immune system of corals used in restoration activities is affected by climate change. And as director of a nonprofit called BWEEMS (Black Women in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Science), she hopes to incorporate opportunities for student learning into the project. 

Rafael Araujo, a senior research associate in the Department of Marine Biology and Ecology at the Rosenstiel School, plans to use existing mangrove conservation strategies to develop a systematic and quantitative approach to evaluate elements that shape risk, vulnerability, and resilience in coastal communities.

“We know that vegetated coastal communities not only play an important role in protecting the coast against catastrophic events such as hurricanes, but they are also powerful agents for trapping atmospheric carbon,” Araujo said. “Our hope is that this project will help reduce the risks imposed by our changing climate, and our vision is to empower coastal communities to be a part of that process.”

As a geographer specializing in climate change and geospatial analysis, Shouraseni Sen Roy hopes to contribute to a deeper understanding of climate-related risks and impacts in South Florida and surrounding areas. “As part of the project, I will use remote sensing analysis to study long-term changes in land use and land cover and the associated impacts from climate change,” said Sen Roy, a professor of geography and sustainable development in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Working closely with residents at each of the three sites will be a key component of the project. As such, Kenny Broad, a professor of environmental science and policy at the Rosenstiel School, will team with Scotney Evans, an associate professor in the School of Education and Human Development, to collaborate with community residents to understand their preferences, concerns, and ideas for implementing the project’s conceptual designs. “Understanding the role of nature-based solutions, not just from an engineering perspective but also from a sociopolitical standpoint, is critical for assessing the potential for dealing with coastal impacts of climate change,” said Broad, who is also director of the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. 

In all, 12 researchers from four University of Miami schools and colleges are collaborating on the project, which is part of the NSF’s Coastlines and People Hubs for Research and Broadening Participation (CoPe) program. The University of South Florida is the lead institution, and the University of Miami’s portion of the project grant is $2.5 million. 

Researchers from Boston University, Stanford, the University of California Santa Cruz, the University of the Virgin Islands, and East Carolina University are also a part of the initiative. 

“This is truly a multidisciplinary project that brings together researchers and practitioners from three regions to evaluate the status of reef restoration efforts, identify and fill knowledge gaps, and share information with all stakeholders affected by the state of coral reefs,” said Diego Lirman, an associate professor of marine biology and ecology at the Rosenstiel School, whose diverse projects over the past 10 years have included evaluating the health of seagrasses, macroalgae, and coral reef communities.

“For the first time, at this scale, a single program recognizes and explores the benefits of community and social engagement in the protection and restoration of coral reefs,” he said. “This project is focused on people and their interaction—and reliance—with coral reefs at a time when climate change has a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable coastal communities. We will learn what magic happens when engineers, modelers, social scientists, economists, ecologists, and restoration practitioners get together in one room.”