Coastal Sustainability Institute > Research > Combining science and social science to save the coast

Combining science and social science to save the coast

A half-century ago, most of the coast of Alabama’s Mobile Bay was salt marshes and other natural vegetation. Today, the coastline consists mostly of manmade bulkheads and vertical walls that property owners have built to stave off erosion and dock boats.

Steven Scyphers studies shorelines like this through an interdisciplinary lens, examining ecological, economic, and sociological factors.   

“Living shorelines” with natural vegetation offer many benefits to marine life and humans, from filtering out pollutants to serving as habitat for food sources like oysters. Scyphers’ research has found that manmade walls are less effective and more harmful than natural options; manmade walls generate powerful waves that accelerate erosion, degrade water quality, and decrease the biodiversity of coastal habitats.  

With $500,000 from a Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability Fellowship from the National Science Foundation, Scyphers explored sociological and economic factors that contribute to coastal degradation. He and other researchers at Northeastern and The Nature Conservancy surveyed more than 600 coastal residents through the Gulf of Mexico and New England to better understand the attitudes, values, and perceptions that enable habitat conservation.

The team found that most property owners value environmental health but didn’t have access to accurate information about shoreline management. For example, many homeowners didn’t realize that natural options like grasses and oyster reefs can be less expensive and better at reducing storm damage than vertical walls. The team also found that homeowners were far more likely to add vertical shoreline walls to respond to damage done by a neighbor’s wall, causing a cascade effect of damage down the coast.

The research suggests that one of the most important factors in coastal conservation is working with property owners to find solutions that meet both environmental and societal goals.

“A scientist might care about coastal biodiversity, but a property owner might care more about erosion,” Scyphers says. “If we want to move toward more sustainable coastlines, we need to understand and cultivate relationships with the communities nearby. The marine science and social science need to be married together.”     

Contact faculty researcher Steven Scyphers.

Author: CSI Staff