PhD Thesis Proposal: Emma Cutler

Thursday, January 4, 2018, 9:30–11:30am

Jackson Conference Room, Cummings Hall

“Climate Risk Management for Coastal Adaptation”


Global mean sea level has risen approximately 20 cm since 1870 and is projected to continue to increase for years to come with possibly more than two meters of rise by the end of this century. This presents challenges for coastal managers, as communities face increased risk of inundation, flooding, and erosion. Adding to these challenges is the fact that the precise magnitude and timing of future sea level rise are deeply uncertain. This thesis examines risk management strategies for sea level rise impacts with the goal of providing information that can help decision-makers consider long-term outcomes, including unintended consequences and social justice, when making adaptation decisions under uncertainty. Results can assist agencies, such as the United States Army Corps of Engineers, better meet the needs of disadvantaged populations and reduce the long-term federal fiscal exposure to climate change.

Part 1 examines the language used in the scientific literature to discuss adaptation, focusing specifically on over-reliance of the word “protect.” The chapter concludes that this wording may be maladaptive and argues for replacing the word “protect” with language that more clearly conveys the concept of near-term hazard reduction. Parts 2 and 3 examine coastal risk reduction in the United States, using the Florida Atlantic Coast as a proof-of-concept case study. Part 2 focuses on long-term effects of federal subsidies for beach nourishment. A dynamic modeling study examines how subsidies may increase dependence on unsustainable beach nourishment practices. The model developed in this chapter allows for non-stationarity in sea level and includes feedbacks between coastal development and management practices. The chapter also reveals perverse incentives that exist within coastal management practices, and it provides a framework that accounts for these unintended consequences in decision-making processes. Part 3 looks at strategies to plan for sea level rise impacts in back bay communities. These low-lying areas, located behind barrier islands, are generally not prioritized in federal coastal storm risk management but are increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise impacts. The chapter develops a methodology to systematically incorporate environmental justice and social vulnerability into decision-making to address this deficiency.

Thesis Committee

For more information, contact Daryl Laware at