Improving understandings of consequences, vulnerabilities, and adaptation strategies to climate change related hazards
Funding:  MIT Sea Grant
Project Date Range:

Project Summary

The project goal is to facilitate hazard mitigation and adaptation planning by coastal communities facing the potential consequences of climate change. We are using the VCAPS (Vulnerability and Consequences Adaptation Planning Scenarios) process which involves a structured dialogue and mediated modeling process, to help community decision-makers and stakeholders create scenarios of the possible effects of climate stressors on their community. VCAPS was initially developed as part of our NOAA SARP project work in South Carolina (more information is available at:

In this project we will work with two coastal communities in Massachusetts. The process is intended to focus the discussion productively, integrate the participants’ knowledge of local conditions with scientific information, and create a record of shared understanding on which to base planning decisions. The results of the VCAPS process will be compared to other hazard management planning methods and feedback elicited from practitioners and local officials to improve the process.

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Read more about the theoretical background of this project.

      Massachusetts’s coastal communities are vulnerable to threats associated with climate change and are also one of the most significantly populated and economically important areas of the Commonwealth. Sea level rise and shoreline erosion are prime problems. Impacts from tidal surges and flooding associated with Nor’easters and hurricanes will likely become more severe with time. Climate-induced changes in inland systems, including rainfall from intense storms, also affect coastal areas. Effects may be exacerbated by land-use changes.

      Managing the diverse hazards associated climate change poses formidable challenges for coastal managers and communities. Specific recommendations such as, “relative sea level rise should be factored into the design life, elevation, and location of buildings and other structures within the coastal floodplain” are helpful, but they do not help communities understand the big picture or prioritize what are the most important actions for their community to take. Community decision-makers need to understand how climate change affects their towns. This includes direct impacts such as shoreline erosion and indirect or “downstream” consequences as well. To justify public expenditures, community leaders need to understand how consequences are related to climate change stressors such as sea level rise, increased storm intensity, or ocean acidification. They also need to understand how municipal actions can exacerbate impacts (e.g., construction of protective seawalls and revetments). Finally, they must understand how management decisions interact in productive and unproductive ways. Of course, Massachusetts’s coastal communities must act within federal and state mandates, even though they have considerable responsibilities as the primary planners for hazard management.
      Massachusetts has been a leader when it comes to hazard mitigation and planning and developing hazard resilient communities. Coastal communities have been a priority area of focus for the Commonwealth. However, the information needs of coastal planners are large, and also not easy to satisfy. Planning is particularly difficult for climate-change related hazards. First, the hazards for which communities are planning are rare events and past experiences with hazards are not adequate to judge future risks. Second, there are considerable uncertainties about the magnitude and frequency of predicted hazards. Third, addressing the impacts of climate change demands a focus on adaptation, and processes that support or hinder it, which in turn requires more than information about the natural and biological processes at play. Local planners also need to understand the socioeconomic dimensions of local vulnerability and resilience.
      Our goal is to improve the process by which communities plan for managing coastal hazards associated with climate change and to provide guidance to practitioners and local officials about how to integrate adaptation planning into existing planning activities and how to choose among the variety of assessment methods to achieve such ends. We seek to complement these resources with a process to summarize knowledge about hazards, their consequences, and management actions as a causal sequence. This is accomplished in a process that integrates locally specific knowledge with scientific information about climate hazards.

      We call our process the Vulnerability and Consequences Adaptation Planning Scenarios (VCAPS) process. We have developed the fundamentals of the process in previous research and pilot tested it in our earlier NOAA funded project in South Carolina. Here we are proposing to focus on three objectives:

  • Demonstrate the feasibility and usefulness of the VCAPS process as a planning and decision-making support aid to communities that are planning for the management of coastal community hazards in a period of climatic change. We propose to work collaboratively with local and state decision makers and other stakeholders to construct scenarios that link climate-related stressors of concern with consequences. This will be integrated with existing hazard mitigation and other planning efforts ongoing in the study communities.
  • Develop and test a package of resources to inform policy makers, planning professionals, stakeholders, and residents more broadly in the Commonwealth about consequences, vulnerabilities, and adaptation strategies in coastal communities. Resources will include “template scenarios” based on the two cases that show the causal linkages between stressors and consequences as they are mediated by vulnerabilities and management actions. The package will also include the VCAPS diagramming program and a guidance document so that template scenarios can be modified to reflect local contexts.
  • Support the work of networked coastal managers and professional extension staff. Recent research on coastal managers in California has shown that they draw heavily on peer professional networks to accomplish their jobs. After working with all two communities, we will hold two workshops to present the scenario-building tool to other local and state planners in New England. We will distribute VCAPS at workshops and via the web (the software will be available free of charge).

      This project will contribute to science in advancing approaches to developing collaborative research approaches, bridging general scientific knowledge and local knowledge, and advancing approaches to collaborative public discourse.  It responds to the increasing calls for a new approach to the practice of science, one that is more use-inspired and decision-relevant through the elaboration of mediated modeling to address local climate change threats and adaptation response options.
      In climate change and other areas of environmental management, there is increasing recognition of the value of working with decision-makers to understand the challenges they face and issues they must resolve.  Specifically, with respect to climate change, there is a tremendous need to integrate the abstract, generalized science about adaptation and resilience with complexity of local conditions where adaptation and improved resilience can occur.  The customary academic approach is to often to analyze categorically different kinds of impacts independently. While it is widely recognized that that impacts combine to produce collateral and synergistic impacts, the science of characterizing these is underdeveloped. Integrating local knowledge about a community, including analogous events, local environmental conditions, conflicting values, and other specific community features, through mediated modeling of scenarios is one approach to overcome that shortfall. VCAPS offers a promising way for different kinds of impacts to be depicted in a holistic manner, in a way that does not require reduction to a unitary dimension. Impacts and the processes driving them are captured in a causal diagram where their contextual meaning and significance is locally situated.


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Water infiltration into electrical utilities
Playing field is temporary water storage area
Leaves block storm sewers
Storm hits New Bedford after our VCAPS meetings
Trying to keep beach sand in place.