Research Program

Project 1: Environmental Security Index

This research examines the nexus between the environment, vulnerability, and conflict and demonstrates the need for careful environmental analysis using a systematic framework. This research will contribute primarily in two ways. The first will be to further develop a vulnerability index based on a robust statistical model. Preliminary results suggest that a statistically significant relationship exists between arable land and access to fresh water, and political stability and non-violence. These statistical relationships will be used to produce a GIS map of vulnerability at a state scale. Second, this research will go beyond the state scale by collecting data on vulnerability at the local level. Local level data will be collected from field research in Uganda, Nigeria and Panama. The findings and data collected during the field research will fine-tune the vulnerability index and give us a greater understanding of how environmental variables influence water stress, political and social vulnerability, and potential conflict at the state and sub-state scale. Studies of this nature are essential because contemporary researchers have defined definitive links between environmental stress and conflict. First and foremost, the proliferation of failing states has singularly reduced the potential for diplomatic resolutions, and that we can no longer continue to rely on quasi–peaceful means to resolve conflicts. Hence, violence resulting from environmental stress is a real possibility. For example, 25 percent of all water–related disputes during the past 50­–years have resulted in some form of hostilities—37 have resulted in violence or military action. Consequently, developing a vulnerability index such as the one I propose is important because various government leaders and directors of non-governmental organizations and intergovernmental bodies will have to deal with humanitarian disasters and potential conflicts triggered by environmental conditions in the coming years.

Project 2: Storm­–Hazard Analysis

Sand dunes are an essential morphological component of barrier island ecosystems. First, dunes are an important buffer to storm energy. They provide an essential source of sand to barrier islands as part of the geomorphic process–response system to storm induced wave energy. Second, they are part of the barrier beach ecosystem. The vital importance of sand dunes was underscored during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Sandy damaged much of the Mid–Atlantic coastline with a 12 to 14 foot storm surge. After the storm, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) inspected the barrier islands of Long Island and verified the importance of sand dunes to the barrier island system. There was a clear and dramatic difference––communities that maintained vital and healthy dune systems did not suffer as much damage as those that did not. Our understanding of the importance of dune systems as a storm buffer is not new. Nevertheless, the maintenance of dune systems is a matter of some dispute and the real question is why, in the face of long–standing and overwhelming evidence, would coastal communities fail to maintain their dune systems?

Most importantly, beaches are the essential economic resource for coastal communities and dunes are viewed negatively because of the perception of their impact on the aesthetics and beach access. Most local businesses do not want dunes. In their view, tourists will be discouraged from visiting their beaches if sand dunes were engineered and maintained, thus obscuring the ocean view. For example, Long Beach, New York blocked a proposed $98 million USACE plan to restore dunes and elevate beaches along six miles of coast to protect Long Beach City. Rather, most residents and business leaders objected to the plan. Thus, in 2006, six years before Sandy, the Long Beach City Council voted 5 to 0 against paying its $7 million share of the project: a decision the city’s 33,000 residents would come to regret in the aftermath of the storm. Long Beach suffered at least $200 million in infrastructure losses, according to post–storm estimates. However, smaller neighboring communities on the barrier island––Point Lookout, Lido Beach and Atlantic Beach––approved construction of 5–meter-high dunes as storm insurance, and those dunes did their job, sparing them catastrophic damage. Long Island’s beaches were not an isolated incident. Up and down the coast, barrier beaches with well–developed dune systems suffered less damage than unprotected segments of the coast by mitigating the attack of storm waves and surges. One such example is Bradley Beach, N.J. This town began building its 3–meter–high dune system along its waterfront during the early 1990s. When Hurricane Sandy came, the force of the waves and effect of the storm surge flattened the dunes but left the boardwalk and houses just 25 meters from it intact. The town’s dune–barrier project cost approximately $10,000 in 1996. The town incurred about $3 million in damage, while many of its unprotected coastal neighbors were devastated.

Despite our longstanding knowledge of the efficacy of dune systems as coastal protection and their importance to barrier island ecosystems, their management is problematic. When dunes are removed from the barrier island ecosystem, there is no longer a natural barrier against strong storms, which can have detrimental consequences on natural and urbanized areas in the coastal zone. Geomorphicaly, dunes serve as part of a negative feedback system to storm energy. Large storm waves flatten and elongate the beach profile. This is a natural response to dissipate wave energy across a wider beach area. The dunes provide a reservoir of sand that is distributed by the waves across the profile, and this action usually prevents all but the very largest storm waves from destroying inland development or natural habitats.

This project will evaluate the pre– and post–storm performance of dune systems in three barrier island systems: (1) Fire Island, New York; (2) Sandy Hook, New Jersey; and (3) Atlantic City, New Jersey. It will evaluate the status of the dune system at each location before and after Sandy and correlate the level of storm–related damage at each location to the health of the dune system. This assessment will be refined by evaluating the performance/presence of dune systems adjacent to each of three land use types: urban/residential; semi natural/recreational ecosystem (i.e., public beach, non–developed); and natural ecosystem (i.e., park or preserve).