Social Science

Ecosystem services are the goods and services from ecological systems that benefit people. These services include protection from coastal storms, habitat for fish and shellfish, and outdoor recreational opportunities. Assigning a value—whether economic, social, or cultural—to the services provided by ecosystems allows managers to compare management options, such as whether to develop or conserve a natural area. It also makes communicating the value of ecosystems to policymakers and the general public easier. NCCOS identifies, measures, and estimates the value of ecosystem services for use by coastal communities, planners, managers, and regulators.

We identify baseline values that society holds for special places and ecosystem services, products, and functions. After estimating values, we can assign to them social, cultural, or monetary worth. We also characterize the bonds that people have toward their favorite coastal places and resources. These non-economic values are important because they are often different from monetary values. Lastly, we estimate changes in people's values as resource conditions change. Coastal managers can then use this information to better manage coastal spaces and natural resources.

Resource managers and community planners need to understand how people use, value, and impact natural resources to effectively manage coastal and marine areas. Managers who consider patterns of human use are better equipped to address conflicts between competing stakeholders. They are also able to understand the potential impacts of human activities on sensitive natural resources and endangered species. NCCOS identifies and characterizes patterns of social, cultural, and economic behaviors that influence how coastal spaces are used and valued, and information on these patterns can be used to better manage these spaces.

We identify patterns of human activities to understand where and how people are using coastal and marine spaces. We then develop user profiles that let managers know who is using coastal spaces and resources, as well as when, where, how, and for what purpose. We also assess the reliance that coastal communities have on coastal places and resources. This helps community planners to better understand community vulnerabilities to prepare for future changes. Lastly, we link patterns of human activities to the values that people place on their coastal and marine environments so that managers can understand which areas are most used and most valued.

Coastal hazards threaten property, community well-being, and marine industries, the latter of which contributes billions of dollars annually to the U.S. economy. By understanding the vulnerabilities of communities to potential coastal hazards—such as sea level rise, oil spills, flooding, water pollution, storms, and coastal erosion—communities can take action to prepare for coastal hazard impacts and increase their recovery potential. With this type of research, coastal communities are able to become more resilient, increasing their ability to sustain local economies in the face of natural hazards. NCCOS generates information and tools that community’s need to better plan for, recover from, and adapt to coastal hazards.

We assess community and ecosystem vulnerabilities to coastal hazards. We examine physical, structural, social, and economic vulnerability, and intersect vulnerability with coastal and climate-related threats to find overlapping areas of high vulnerability and high risk. This helps coastal communities make better informed decisions related to hazard planning, mitigation planning, and recovery efforts. We also assess hazard impacts on communities, industries, and infrastructure to inform a region's recovery potential. Understanding recovery potential, alongside vulnerability, allows planners to target resources to increase their community's potential for resilience.

Over 123 million people live within America’s coastal shoreline counties. These coastal communities produce $6.6 trillion annually in goods and services, and employ over 51 million people. This large coastal population depends on natural resources for food, health, economic security, cultural benefits, and recreation. Coastal communities also depend on the environment for access to clean water, livelihood opportunities, and protection from coastal storms. Because our coastal communities and economies are dependent on nearby coastal and marine ecosystems, it is important that we understand the relationships between them.

The NCCOS social science team is made up of sociologists, economists, geographers, and coastal specialists, and we focus our research on the connections between people and the environment. We provide tools, maps, and products to help communities sustainably manage their natural resources and protected areas, and to better understand and respond to coastal hazards and contaminated coastal waters. We work across our Marine Spatial Ecology, Stressor Impacts and Mitigation, and Coastal Change portfolios, and prioritize our research within the three categories listed above.