CNH: Coupled Natural-Human Dynamics in a Vulnerable Coastal System

This interdisciplinary research project will investigate the sustainability of coastal communities that are especially vulnerable to natural resource losses and natural hazards. The investigators will focus on the Lower Mississippi River Basin in Louisiana, which is one of the most vulnerable coasts in the continental United States and the world. Over the years, this deltaic region has endured multiple threats and disasters, such as land loss, subsidence, sea-level rise, flooding, hurricanes, and oil spills. The disappearance of land is a critical problem in the southern part of the region. During the past decade, significant population and economic growth has occurred in the northern part of the study area, whereas the southern part surrounding New Orleans has experienced population and economic decline. A pressing question is whether southern coastal Louisiana reached a tipping point that makes it too costly to sustain. If so, has the same type of economic and ecosystem functions gradually migrated to the neighboring region to the north? The researchers will quantify and explain these changes using a coupled natural-human system approach, and they will evaluate the implications of those findings for future planning and mitigation. The four objectives the researchers will pursue are (1) to develop methods to assess the sustainability or resilience of a coastal system; (2) to develop a system-level model to capture and quantify the dynamic linkages among the major natural and human components; (3) to compare and contrast the resiliency between the northern and southern parts of coastal Louisiana so as to understand the resiliency control factors; and (4) to simulate future scenarios for planning and decision making.

This project will assess the sustainability of the lower Mississippi River basin in Louisiana using a coupled natural-human system approach. It will increase basic understanding about the key factors affecting the sustainability of a coastal system and how these key factors interact at a system level. The comparison between the two systems in coastal Louisiana will provide new knowledge regarding how the two systems have been coupled in the past that enhances understanding of system interactions in the present and facilitates projections for the future. The set of sustainability assessment and modeling tools and software developed in this project will be valuable educational as well as decision-making tools for students, other researchers, and decision makers. The project will engage a wide audience, including K-12 students and teachers from underserved schools, local governmental officials, environmental groups, and the public. Project findings will inform policy makers and the public about how to increase the resilience of the region, and they will provide scenarios to better plan for the future. The findings also will provide new insights regarding other deltaic regions around the world that are faced with similar types of threats and challenges. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.