2017-09-07 / Front Page

Marine scientist eyes seaports’ vulnerabilities


McLEAN McLEAN The United States is dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey while prepping for Irma’s arrival, which highlights the urgency of an impending research project at the University of Rhode Island.

Elizabeth McLean, a recent Jamestown transplant, is co-authoring the report. She is a research associate at the school’s Coastal Institute who has been studying marine ecosystems for decades.

The project’s goal is to determine whether there is a consensus to the vulnerability of North Atlantic seaports from “extreme weather impacts.” The report is part of a wider study on the impact of climate change on commercial docks, a project funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She is working alongside associate professor Austin Becker.

Getting anecdotal information

Their new project is rooted in social science, which is the study of human society and social relationships. Not only will McLean and Becker base their findings on oceanographic data, they will incorporate firsthand observations from workers who manage the docks daily. The team plans to interview stakeholders at 23 Atlantic ports, including Providence and Fall River, Mass. Along with the rank and file, McLean will interview high-ranking officials at each city’s port authority to learn what hurdles keep them from preparing for intensifying storms.

“When we talk about a major disaster, a lot of the negative impacts can be prevented if we have a foresight in implementing adaptations,” she said.

She will ask them about Hurricane Harvey, the catastrophic storm that trampled Houston in the final week of August, killing at least 60 people and leaving an estimated $100 billion in damages in its wake.

“Any hurricane that comes to the coast will have a minor or major impact depending on the level of preparation,” McLean said. “At a port level, we’re talking about major investments.”

Among the barriers is limited financial resources, which hampers a port’s ability to invest in infrastructure improvements.

Along with preparedness, she will ask port officials about vulnerability, which is defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as an area’s exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity to extreme weather. The latter criterion is directly tied to the preparedness segment of the report.

“It’s a complex concept, because it’s socio-political and socio-environmental,” she said. “It’s got so many different aspects to be able to understand what the constraints are.”

Pairing that with data

Although the project will emphasize the observations and opinions from stakeholders, it also will include scientific data collected at each port. Most of the meteorological and oceanographic information, such as sea-level rise and flooding, is extracted from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Once the scientific data is collected and the interviews are complete, McLean will analyze the responses to determine the similarities and differences between the port officials. She will use a so-called “cultural consensus model,” which clusters the level of agreement.

“Either people are clustering all together with the points and the values of the responses, or they can cluster separately, indicating that there’s differences in the observations with the knowledge that they share,” she said. “I can’t predict what the results are going to be like, but from a management point of view, if you have a higher level of agreement, it’s better.”

McLean is interested in the relationship between the social and ecological sides. While her primary background is marine biology and environmental science, she has gained valuable knowledge by interacting with fishermen in her native Dominican Republic. She was assessing the sustainability of their fisheries from their perception.

“What’s most fascinating for me from studying the fishermen is that they live in the environment, so they capture knowledge that is on a continuum versus when we go to a research side and take a snapshot,” she said.

Making local connections

Despite their plans, McLean and Becker have yet to begin the main portion of their new project, although they did receive a $1,500 university grant in August. That money helped pay McLean’s salary as she wrote larger grant proposals to fully pay for the seaport study. Once completed, the report will be presented at scientific conferences and the finding will be release to the public.

Although McLean has been at the university since 2010, she only joined Becker at the Coastal Institute in September, which is when she moved to Jamestown. Although her new hometown is not a major port, McLean said her work still applies to smaller coastal towns, particularly the aspects about preparing for a large storm.

In the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, for example, evacuation routes are clearly marked, which gives islanders the conscience of which direction they have to move. From major infrastructure improvements to simple signs, McLean hopes her report can make it safer to live along the shore.

“Having foresight allows the decision-makers to implement these investments that can prevent major disasters,” she said.

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