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Flooding in a coastal neighborhood after a storm. Credit: NOAA.

Stakeholder Focus Groups Improve Communication of Coastal Sea Level Rise Risks

Published on: 05/01/2018
Region(s) of Study: Waterbodies / Gulf of Mexico

Coastlines are composed of marshes, barrier islands, estuaries, and other environments that are ecologically, socially, and economically important. Coastal flooding is increasing in regularity and magnitude with increasing sea level rise, which influences the ecological value and habitability of these regions by drowning marsh-like habitats, altering habitats through redundant flooding, and magnifying life-threatening storm surge events.

New recommendations on how to communicate science on the threats of coastal flooding and the impacts of sea level rise have been published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. The project was supported by NOAA NCCOS’s Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise (EESLR) program and was completed by researchers at Louisiana State University and the University of Central Florida. The study describes the key role that stakeholder focus groups served in a 6-year project (click for full project description) in the northern Gulf of Mexico, leading to general recommendations for communication strategies. The recommendations include how to target audiences, select message content and format, and distribute key messages to ensure that the right individuals are aware of the science they need to make an informed decision.

The conclusions show that researching necessary preparations for addressing coastal flooding under sea level rise scenarios requires a trans-disciplinary approach that is inclusive of both academic and non-academic stakeholders (coastal resource managers, and environmental communication professionals).  When research focuses on addressing a practical problem that is relevant to a diverse audience, all stakeholders must be engaged to ensure that it is accessible and useful. Final products are only likely to be valuable if all relevant stakeholders are engaged during the planning and development of the project. Stakeholder focus groups are one approach to engaging a diverse audience but only under particular circumstances.

For example, stakeholder groups helped design the tools that now support local, state, and federal decision makers to more effectively plan and mitigate increased flood risk in the area of the country most threatened by sea level rise (example). In this case, six workshops were held at three National Estuarine Research Reserves (NERR’s) to engage regional coastal managers and to both hone and disseminate the important findings of this project. Repeated face-face focus meetings ensured that the science underlying the tools, and the tools themselves offered the right information in an accessible way to the individuals that will benefit from using the tool. Stakeholder groups offer a back-and forth communication opportunity, as well as both empirical qualitative information that can allow for specific targeting of scientific messages to a region. Alternatively, targeted stakeholder groups, would be less effective if science is targeting a wider public audience across larger regions. These general findings are immediately being applied to ongoing science in the Northern Gulf of Mexico.

Citation: DeLorme, Denise E., Sonia H. Stephens and Scott C. Hagen. 2017. Transdisciplinary sea level rise risk communication and outreach strategies from stakeholder focus groups. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 8(1): 13-21. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-017-0443-8

For more information contact Trevor Meckley at Trevor.Meckley@noaa.gov

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