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Measuring the Human Dimensions of Coastal Ecosystems

Ecosystem Characterization and Biogeographic Assessment
Human Dimensions research at NCCOS focuses on the impacts and long-term consequences of human participation in coastal ecosystems. We are using social science to better understand the linkages between coastal ecosystems and human health and well-being, with the aim of providing information to managers responsible for natural resources, public heath, community planning, and environmental health.

Why is this important?

Coastal communities depend on natural resources for food, health, economic security, cultural and spiritual benefits, and recreation, in addition to the less obvious benefits such as carbon sequestration, clean water, and storm protection. Society and coastal ecosystems are intertwined. It is important that we identify and describe the connections so that the consequences and benefits of our policies and actions will be understood.

Threats and Benefits

Human activity has long been acknowledged as a threat to coastal resources. Yet, with the exception of fisheries, less is known about our dependence on coastal and marine ecosystems and the harm to communities from changes in coastal ecosystems.

Human activities change coastal and marine resources through coastal development and the use of resources. On a local scale, fishing and boating activities; the development of beach and estuaries; nutrients and pesticides from farms, roadsides, and backyards; and industrial pollution compromise the health of marine organisms and habitats. On national and global scales, impacts from air pollution, climate warming, marine transportation, and fishing industries threaten ocean health. In turn, a decline in coastal and ocean condition threatens our health and well-being. Coastal communities are dependent on sound coastlines for protection from storms, recreation, and livelihoods. Public health and cultural activities depend on clean and safe waters. All communities depend on the ocean to mitigate climate extremes and disease. The benefits we receive from healthy oceans and coasts ensure healthy and resilient communities and economies. Placing a value on protection and access to common resources is becoming more important to decision-makers. In order to make informed trade-offs it is important to know the value of what you are trading.

To mitigate harmful effects and to maximize needed benefits it is important to understand the value of these resources. To do that NCCOS uses social science methods to understand the benefits of ecosystem services and the changes in communities when the services are disrupted:

  • We look at harmful human activities and learn how to change behavior.
  • We measure the human dimensions of coastal ecosystem health (e.g., changes in ecosystem services, pollution levels) and conservation using social science methods, including: quantitative modeling with secondary data, primary data collection and analysis using surveys, participatory workshops, focus groups, and interviews.
  • We develop approaches for risk assessment and work to integrate social science information with ecosystem assessments.
  • We are developing the capacity to work on a broad scale to describe indicators for monitoring local communities and counties. We are also able to identify the values communities have for ecosystem services, places, and the overall condition of the environment.

This work is conducted and disseminated in partnership with federal, state, and academic agencies to provide the full range of information needed for coastal resources decision-making.

Projects and Publications