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A better future for urban coastal environments

More than two-thirds of the world’s major cities are by the sea. As the world’s population grows, many of those cities are experiencing massive influxes, which translate into increasing burdens on coastal environments, according to Geoff Trussell, director of Northeastern’s Marine Science Center and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

In the second installment of the College of Science Colloquium series, held on Wednesday, Trussell discussed how the new Urban Coastal Sustainability Initiative will promote and develop sustainable science, policy and planning for urban coastal systems.

“Ultimately our goal is to focus on the land-sea interface and look at how human  activities at this critical boundary influence the sustainability of coastal ecosystems,” he said.

The challenges facing urban coastal environments are a global issue, he explained. Ninety percent of marine biodiversity is contained within these environments, which are under siege because of overfishing, invasive species, and pollution. Morevoer, the oceans are warming and acidifying and sea levels are rising as the polar ice sheets melt away due to global warming, he said.

There are also security issues: 95 percent of international cargo comes to the U.S. by ship, but only two percent of the 6 million containers that arrive on U.S. shores annually are inspected for potential threats, Trussell said.

The Urban Coastal Sustainability Initiative seeks to address each of these challenges through an interdisciplinary approach. Across the university, new faculty members are coming on board to study urban coastal systems from engineering, policy and scientific perspectives.

“We don’t want just a scientist. We don’t want just an engineer. We want somebody who wants to wear multiple hats,” he said.

Northeastern faculty are also building collaborations with other marine labs across the globe, such as the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Back at home, Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant is located 25 minutes outside of Boston, offering researchers a unique opportunity to study immediate human impacts on the urban coastal system

“Scientists have historically examined environmental and ecological issues by establishing research outposts in pristine environments far away from human activity.  The problem is that the fraction of environments impacted by human activity across the globe is growing.  To achieve sustainability, we must focus on how humans and their environment interact,” Trussell said.

Murray Gibson, Dean of the College of Science, said Trussell and his colleagues “have developed a great vision that will establish Northeastern and the Marine Science Center as a global leader in the arena of urban coastal sustainability.”

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