Our Themes

Future Earth Coasts Themes facilitate and enable the exchange of knowledge between scientists, managers and other stakeholders concerning the impact and importance of change on coastal governance and management. Working groups develop methodologies to co-produce applicable knowledge products based on the synthesis of the best available information at the time, and develop capacity to identify pathways of transformations from unsustainable to more sustainable practices as an iterative process that collectively implement the Our Coastal Futures initiative.

Coastal systems and regional seas are constantly changing as a result of biophysical and socio‐economic activities. Work will focus on synthesizing existing understanding of the changing state of coasts in terms of risks and future trends and can include:

  • Building on the LOICZ sediment model by adding the ecosystem, geomorphology and governance dimension
  • Identifying socio-economic drivers of change on the coast
  • Developing typologies of coastal vulnerability and resilience at various spatial and temporal scales
  • Application of ecosystem models for assessing impact of anthropogenic activities on coastal biodiversity and resultant future changes in ecosystem productivity in hotspots
  • Identifying and assessing links and feedbacks between social and ecological systems in the coastal zone
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Growth of the human population and migration disproportionately concentrated in coastal regions, places added demands on coastal land space and food resources while increasing nutrient loads and raising vulnerability to inundation and floods. Systems are in place to analyse and understand many components of coastal dynamics, but integrated assessment of changing coastal systems, impacts, feedback, thresholds and effective response mechanisms require further strengthening. It is important to build capacity to comprehend, and where appropriate measure, and adapt to coastal change taking into account thresholds in the coastal system. This entails an understanding of the physical, chemical, and biological processes that define coastal dynamics, and the role of human activities in these changes. We need to understand how coastal social-ecological systems operate, how they generate goods and services for human use, and the implications of human-driven degradation of the system.
Tools exist to measure the bio-physical characteristics of the coast to explain the structure and functioning of coastal ecosystems subject to environmental forces and constraints imposed mainly on local scales. Changes are ongoing, and in many cases accelerating; many were entrained long before their importance was recognized, and are exemplified by alteration to biogeochemical cycles. The rates, scales, kinds, and combinations of changes occurring now are fundamentally different from those at any other time in history.

Understanding how changes in the bio-physical characteristics of coastal systems alter opportunity and options for human enterprise is becoming harder as coasts are increasingly subject to phenomena that transcend these conventional scales and apparently well-defined ‘natural’ boundaries are ceasing to be the relevant ones. This theme addresses the science of coastal waters needed to understand and explain ecosystem behaviour beyond the ‘classical’ absence of human “perturbations”, such as long-distance transport of materials, introduction of new species, and human-accelerated climate and land use change. Activity in this theme will seek to evolve existing and develop new tools to investigate the drivers and consequences of changes in scales (temporal and well as spatial) associated with human activities. Biophysical science tools and methodologies measure baseline status and trends over time and can provide information that is critical to underpin an analysis of future options for human enterprise at the coast. Such tools can help understand (1) the rates and implications of alteration of bio-physical coastal systems, and (2) the characteristics and dynamics of the interaction between the numerous human and environmental components of the coast. Such information provides a reference point alongside understanding of the human dimensions of global change—the social, economic, cultural, and other drivers of human actions.

This theme addresses the science of coastal waters needed to understand and explain ecosystem behaviour beyond the ‘classical’ absence of human “perturbations”, such as long-distance transport of materials, introduction of new species, and human-accelerated climate and land use change.

Examples of Critical Research Questions that have been identified by the research community are:

1. How do “hinterland” (river catchment) activities (e.g. damming, deforestation, nutrient loading), together with coastal dynamics, impact on mass, energy and sediment fluxes in the coastal zone?
2. What is the nature and pace of changes taking place along vulnerable coastlines? Which are the most vulnerable coastal regions in relation to global change?
3. How will changing coastal water condition (e.g. ocean acidification, eutrophication and hypoxia) impact on biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services in the coastal zone, and what measures could mitigate the undesirable effects?
4. How will coastal aquifers and groundwater resources respond to sea level rise and increasing saltwater intrusion, and how can freshwater quality be maintained under these conditions?
5. How will coastal communities be affected by sea-level rise and increasing levels of erosion? What development or management practices have enhanced or inhibited coastal stability, safety of infrastructure, or conservation of coastal habitat?
6. How can we ensure the long-term survival of coral reefs and mangroves in response to the combined impacts of climate change and other existing stressors?
7. How can the impacts of climate change on the coastal zone be distinguished from impacts from other sources of Global Environmental Change?

From these series of questions, possible activities could seek to evolve existing and develop new tools to investigate the drivers and consequences of changes in scales (temporal and well as spatial) associated with human activities, such as:

  • Build on the LOICZ sediment model by adding the ecosystem, geomorphology and governance dimensions to the model
  • Identify socio-economic changes affecting coasts
  • Develop typologies of coastal vulnerability and resilience at relevant spatial and temporal scales
  • Apply ecosystem models to assess the impact of anthropogenic activities on coastal biodiversity and resultant future changes in ecosystem productivity in coastal hotspots
  • Identify and assess links and feedback between social and ecological systems in the coastal zone

Coastal change potentially threatens human well‐being. This WG will synthesize the impacts of coastal change on economy and society to understand the interactions between vulnerabilities at the local, regional and global scale, and can include:

  • The development of biophysical constraint models for sustainable development goals
  • Ecological economics
  • Studies of wellbeing
  • Sustainability indicators
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A significant proportion of the global economic activity is generated in the coastal zone, including business arising from activities specific to coastal locations, such as fishing, shipping, tourism, ports, offshore hydrocarbons and marine renewable energy. ‘Blue Growth’, focused on new and emerging maritime sectors, is accelerating development at the coast. Discourse on the ‘greening’ of the blue economy provides an opportunity to consider the development of fast growing marine based industries, whilst protecting the underlying resource upon which they are based. While the coastal zone is clearly vitally important as an economic generator, economic growth should be seen as a means to development, rather than an end in itself. Human development takes a more comprehensive approach, concerning the process of enlarging people’s freedoms and opportunities, and improving well-being. From this perspective, a person’s state of well-being must be understood as being socially and psychologically co-constituted in specific social, political and cultural contexts.

The agenda for achieving sustainable development goals for people and for the planet in this century includes thriving lives and livelihoods, sustainable food security, sustainable water security, universal clean energy, healthy and productive ecosystems, and governance for sustainable societies. However, during the 20th and early 21st century, biophysical and social constraints have increasingly included energy scarcity, climate change, loss of ecosystem services, the limitations of neoclassical economics, demographics and human settlement patterns.

Ecosystem services provided by natural environments form the basis for the human economy everywhere and are also at risk from climate change impacts and overuse. Global development is where we can integrate the economic sectors of activity and how it interfaces with the coast. What are the trends? What are the trade-offs? What does this mean for human well-being? Researchers in this field provide insights into the interplay between poverty, vulnerability, power and inequalities. As the international community moves towards the implementation of the SDGs, the human development approach becomes critical, to provide the knowledge needed to understand the links between the dynamic coast and human well-being. This theme focuses on the most pressing challenges of sustainable development and well-being among coastal communities, such as the need for clean drinking water, energy, food, health and access to supporting ecosystem services. There is a critical need for the social sciences and humanities to inform options for decision-making around issues such as access to marine resources, ecosystem restoration, coastal livelihoods, environmental impact, food security, and transitioning to new energy futures.
An important element of sustainability science is to develop a framework within which constraints to sustainable development can be analysed. It is likely that sustainable development will be difficult if not impossible for some areas of the earth. It is critical that these issues be considered in future sustainable coastal development plans. Alternative models for global development and our coasts are also needed so that human ingenuity and technological innovation in areas such as marine renewable energy and sustainable fishing techniques can be harnessed to deal with the consequences of over-exploitation.

Examples of Critical Research Questions that have been identified by the research community are:

1. What are the alternative pathways for avoiding the impact of global development on our coasts?
2. How can human ingenuity and technological innovation stem the tide of destruction to coastal ecosystem goods and services?
3. How can communication about coastal ecosystem goods and services promote their sustainable management?

From these series of questions, possible activities could includes the development and application of conceptual frameworks and indicators to take stock of the complex interplay between social and natural planetary systems and boundaries, such as:

  • Develop biophysical constraint models for sustainable development goals
  • Advance the development and application of coastal sustainability indicators, incorporating factors such as ecological economics and human well-being.

Identifying and choosing possible pathways to sustainability. Work will identify horizon scanning/scenario processes to identify options for societal transitions towards sustainability. Furthermore, it will aim to understand how society, and its institutions, can be empowered to make decisions that resolve conflicts and lead to increased action and behavioural change, and can include:

  • Development and application of methodologies for governance baseline assessments taking into consideration incorporation of ICZM practices in coastal management
  • Global comparative analysis of decision making processes in the coastal zone
  • Discourse analysis and participatory frameworks
  • Stakeholder mapping
  • Behavioural sciences, psychology
  • Devising science-based adaptive management addressing adverse impacts in the coastal zone
  • Cataloguing bright spots and dark spots of decision making at the coast
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Arguably the most altered and imperiled social-ecological systems on Earth, coasts are characterised by pervasive unsustainable practices. Human pursuit of sustainability will be gauged by the extent to which coastal communities can design development pathways and navigate towards sustainable coastal development. Much can be learned from the successes and failures of coastal management endeavours over the last four to five decades. Business as usual is patently unsustainable in an era of global change with intensifying human pressure and escalating disaster risk at the land-sea interface. Transformative change is necessary to transition towards safer and more resilient and sustainable pathways.

Capacity needs to be built so that coastal communities, vulnerable to sea-level rise, storm surges, coastal hazards, ecosystem degradation, and loss of ecosystem services (e.g. loss of ice), and economic decline, can transition towards alternative futures. This involves a process of understanding the need for significant systemic changes, informed by scientific analysis of trends, acknowledging local knowledge and ‘ways of knowing’, and taking stock of social-ecological system constraints and opportunities for transformation. This endeavour demands innovative research and practices that ‘think outside the box’ – with new modalities of transdisciplinary action research that complement traditional disciplinary research. There are many gaps in our knowledge and understanding about how to transform prevailing coastal thinking and practices.

Understanding transformation pathways requires identification of the near- to long-term choices towards specified goals, including choices pertaining to governance, technological innovation, economy, environment, social justice, health and well-being in the coastal zone. Such considerations necessitate re-framing how we understand and take actions in pursuit of ‘human progress’ with vitally important implications for how we reconcile individual, group and societal interests, rights and responsibilities within and between generations. By focusing on transition pathways, the Coastal Futures research is needed to help inform perceptions, alternatives, scenarios and choices about our coastal future at multiple levels. An interdisciplinary approach is required to build understanding of how today’s actions influence future options. This also involves diagnostics of key enablers and barriers to transformation, from the bureaucracy of institutions to the behaviour of individuals, that can foster sustainable outcomes or trigger maladaptive practices. Futures initiative places collaborative visioning, joint problem-solving, social learning, and adaptive planning at its core. Research outcomes need to show value from both rapid and long-term engagements with stakeholders; enable shifting paradigms for sustainable development of the coast; facilitate a comparative analysis of capacity for change; and provide an opportunity to produce a global synthesis of pathways to sustainable coastal development.

Examples of Critical Research Questions that have been identified by the research community are:

1. What kind of desired coastal futures are we transitioning to?
2. What are the ethical implications of prevailing practices and alternative transformative pathways in the face of persistent poverty, inequity and entrenched power imbalances?
3. What are the barriers and enablers for societal transformation to enable coastal resilience and sustainability?
4. How are human patterns of consumption shaped by education programs, research, financial incentives, and other policy instruments?
5. Under which key conditions do governance actors, processes and structures drive transformative change towards solving coastal collective action problems?
6. How and when does the self-interested individual turn into a collective actor? How relevant are social identity, (new/local) social norms and principles in this respect?

From these series of questions, possible activities could include actions that could co-design models for stakeholder engagement, involving actors from government, industry, science and civil society, and work across local to global sustainability agendas / FEC Application Arenas to facilitate transformative change, that work with complexity, diverse norms and principles; go beyond incremental change; and are relatively simple to roll-out, such as:

  • Develop a ‘Coastal Futures’ assessment and capability building approach with a focus on the interactions between the global, regional, national and local levels and related initiatives e.g., SDGs, UNEP Regional Seas, National coastal policy provisions and local programmes and projects.
  • Diagnose future coastal scenarios and sustainability pathways by developing a framework for assessment, based on futures research and transition science.
  • Refine and apply methodologies for governance baseline assessments taking into consideration incorporation of ICZM practices in coastal management (e.g. decision making, discourse analysis, participatory frameworks, adaptation and stakeholder mapping)
  • Build capacity to incorporate knowledge from behavioural science and psychology
  • Catalogue bright spots and dark spots with respect enablers and inhibitors of sustainability at the coast
  • Synthesise transformative pathways identified in this work.