As coastal communities continue to be threatened by more frequent and severe storms and sea level rise, there is a demand to better understand the challenges these communities face and to develop effective resilience strategies to deal with those challenges.

Assistant Professor Anamaria Bukvic of the College of Natural Resources and Environment is using a fellowship from the National Center for Atmospheric Research to look into the issue of population mobility in the face of coastal vulnerability.

Bukvic, a faculty member in the Department of Geography and an affiliate of the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech, housed in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, was selected as a Fellow of the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Early Career Faculty Innovator Program, which provides funding for Fellows to partake in convergence research that tackles a specific pressing issue and addresses both its physical and social dimensions. This year’s research theme was “Coastal Regions and Human Settlements.”

“Recurrent flooding and other hazards in coastal areas represent a very complex and unique challenge that can only be resolved by holistic problem-solving,” said Bukvic, a co-leader of the Coastal@VT initiative.

“We already know a lot about the physical risks but much less about the human aspects, such as risk perceptions, values, attitudes, and behaviors,” she continued. “We need to understand how social systems respond to coastal flooding and accelerated sea level rise so that we can develop more effective policies and programs for adaptation in coastal communities.”

Bukvic’s research focuses on the subject of coastal vulnerability to flooding and, more specifically, on flood-induced population displacement and relocation. During her summer residency at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) facility in Boulder, Colorado, she established new collaborations with NCAR scientists and other Fellows to study the issue from different disciplinary angles and by using novel methodologies.

“A great strength of this program is that it includes both social and physical scientists,” Bukvic said. “It’s not just STEM-based — there are strong elements of social science as well. We have the opportunity to not only work with unique data sets provided by NCAR but also to interact and collaborate with scientists from a diverse range of disciplines who are all working on the issue of coastal resilience.”

In addition to supporting early career faculty, NCAR’s Innovator Program provides funds for graduate students to participate. Aaron Whittemore, a master’s student in geography at Virginia Tech, accompanied Bukvic to NCAR.

“It was a great experience,” Whittemore said. “All of the professors involved were in the early stages of their careers, and they were really motivated. New ideas were constantly sparking up during meetings, and I learned a lot, even outside the science work, just by talking to these professors. It was exciting to see how they came together to create really collaborative work.”

Whittemore spent the summer researching the factors that affect how people feel about places where they live. Those factors will be used to develop a sense-of-place metric to help scientists better understand why some people prefer to relocate and others to stay in place despite the risks.

For Bukvic, a native of Croatia, the experience of living close to the sea is a familiar one, and she recognizes the challenges in speaking to communities about sea level rise.

“Growing up, I always looked forward to summers on the Adriatic Sea. It’s given me an appreciation for the coastal culture and lifestyle and the many ecosystem services coastal environments provide. I understand that any discussion about whether people should stay in place or move away from the coast is a difficult one. It’s important to think about climate processes within the context of adaptive adjustments that would help people cope with flooding as well as safely relocate when staying in place is no longer possible.”

As a part of the two-year long fellowship, Bukvic will spend another summer residency at the NCAR facility, where she and graduate student Jack Gonzales will work with NCAR collaborators and other Fellows on the new convergence research efforts. Some of these efforts will benefit from NCAR’s capacity to provide unique data and skill sets, as well as expertise in specific disciplinary domains.

Written by David Fleming

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