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Measuring resilience on the ‘front lines’ of climate change

Approximately 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the coast, according to research from the United Nations (UN).  That translates into 3 billion people who are exposed to the risks associated with rising sea levels and extreme weather, such as major hurricanes and typhoons!

Over the past several years, coastal adaptation projects, programs and policies have been implemented in a number of developing countries, but to date, there are no standardized assessments and quantifiable indicators of resilience to judge their cost-effectiveness and feasibility. If you can’t measure resilience, it’s hard to know whether what you are doing is going to enhance it. Addressing that critical reality is what animates the Global Resilience Institute-funded project “Measuring Resilience for Coastal Adaptation,” co-led by Northeastern University professors Laura Kuhl and Steven Scyphers.

Approximately 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the coast

“Coastal communities are on the front lines of climate change,” Scyphers explains, adding that focusing on these areas allows their team to “look at resilience not only from the risk perspective, but also in terms of resource use.” Scyphers, who is an Assistant Professor of Marine Sciences, argues that it is important to look at how coastal communities rely on the natural environment by using the ocean as a food source.

“Coastal projects are interesting because you have these livelihoods perspectives,” adds Kuhl, an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and International Affairs.

The interdisciplinary project aims to develop a framework of indicators to measure resilience in the context of coastal adaptation projects in developing countries. It will leverage a strategic partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which has a partnership with the Climate Policy Lab, where Kuhl served as the Adaptation and Resilience Lead for the 2016-2017 academic year. The UNDP currently has over 250 active projects and programs in over 110 countries, supporting areas including resilient livelihoods, climate resilient integrated water resources and coastal management, integrated climate change strategies, community- and ecosystem-based adaptation, and climate-resilient infrastructure and energy.

“From a developing country context, one of the real challenges of climate change is that it threatens to halt or reverse a lot of the development gains we’ve seen in the last decade,” says Kuhl. “It’s a major threat in many of these countries, particularly in small islands, or coastally dominated countries. This threatens to undermine their entire economy and existentially eliminate entire countries.”

Kiribati, an island country in the central Pacific Ocean, made headlines in 2014 when it acquired a 5,460-acre piece of land in Fiji, as its government worked to address the impacts of climate change.

Kuhl’s and Scyphers’ project is fueled by a sense of urgency. It is designed to be responsive to policy needs in developing countries and is informed by a cross-college collaboration that brings together science and public policy.  Scyphers brings a deep knowledge of coastal resilience and coastal adaptation to measure resilience and develop indicators. Kuhl brings a perspective at the policy level, with experience looking at adaption in developing countries. Supported by a Northeastern graduate student, the researchers will:

  1. Conduct a retrospective analysis of 10 years of coastal adaptation projects supported by UNDP focusing on the conceptualization and measurement of resilience;
  2. Develop a monitoring framework, indicators, and “best practice” for integrating resilience for coastal adaptation to be used by UNDP, and
  3. Launch a pilot study and baseline data collection in collaboration with UNDP and government partners

Through their strategic partnership with the UNDP, the team expects their project to directly lead to real-world results.

“A lot of people at Northeastern are working on projects that are trying to have a use-inspired outcome,” says Scyphers. “Our research is focused on problem solving and improving the condition of people in many different scenarios.”

Kuhl adds, “We, as academics, can contribute by being able to step back, look at the bigger picture to see what has been done in the past and what is being done in the rest of the world.”


About the GRI:
The Global Resilience Institute ( is leading a university-wide interdisciplinary effort to advance resilience-related initiatives that contribute to the security, sustainability, health and well-being of societies. Our objective is to help advance preparedness at multiple levels to effectively respond to slowly emerging disruptions and sudden disasters, both human-made and naturally-occurring. To learn more about the seed-funding program, click here.

Media Contact:
Christine Boynton
Communications & Media Manager