Northeastern, Nature Conservancy team up to tackle climate change, save coastal cities

The Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts, on July 6, 2017. Photo by Benjamin Bertsch/Northeastern University

Coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Rising sea levels and increasingly frequent ocean storms threaten residents who depend on the environment for their economy and infrastructure.

To address these issues, Northeastern’s Coastal Sustainability Institute and The Nature Conservancy are combining their expertise in coastal conservation.

“It’s clear that coastal risks are rising,” said Mike Beck, the lead marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy, a global conservation organization that works to protect communities from coastal hazards and climate change. “There’s a need for cost-effective solutions and an interest from decision-makers to address these issues together.”

More than half of the world’s population lives near the coast, with a growing number of people residing in major coastal cities such as Boston and Miami.

Northeastern is a global leader in coastal research, particularly through its work at the Marine Science Center and the Coastal Sustainability Institute, where faculty explore sea-level rise and storm surge, collapsing fisheries, invasive species, pollution, loss of biodiversity, and extreme weather.

Geoff Trussell, director of both the Marine Science Center and the Coastal Sustainability Institute, said that counties sitting on coastal shorelines produce 40 percent of the nation’s total jobs and 46 percent of its gross domestic product. But flooding damage in coastal cities could reach $1 trillion by 2050 and put their economies in jeopardy, he said.

“What matters is that the sea level is rising,” Trussell said. “So forget about mitigation; we need to adapt. Unless we do this, it is going to be a major issue.”

The partnership will include the creation of a position for a postdoctoral fellow who will begin a two-year fellowship in fall 2018 and operate out of the Coastal Sustainability Institute in Nahant, Massachusetts, and The Nature Conservancy’s Boston offices.

Scientists from both organizations will mentor the fellow, which Steven Scyphers, an assistant professor of marine biology and environmental sciences at Northeastern, said is particularly exciting.

“Scientists at The Nature Conservancy can give the fellow an on-the-ground conservation perspective that postdocs don’t necessarily get from an academic institution,” said Scyphers, who is running the fellowship program for Northeastern.

Beck sees the merits of partnering with a university. “University-based research carries a different weight, often more than research solely done by NGOs,” he said.

Scyphers agrees that the partnership plays to both institutions’ strengths. “The Nature Conservancy recognizes the value that natural coastal habitats have, which will be theme of the fellowship’s first year,” he said.

Added Beck: “It’s clear that we’re not coming with a one-size-fits-all or a one-dimensional approach to this problem. We understand that this problem has social, ecological, and economic implications—so all pathways are possible to finding solutions.”