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Meet the new Coastal Resilience Research Associate

Climate scientist Emily Powell sees an opportunity to combine her expertise and her dedication to sharing information in a new role working with coastal LCCs on resilience issues: “I wanted to get back to the space between research, science, and communications, working as a liaison between data, tools, and the people who need them."

When Emily Powell learned about the opening for a Coastal Resilience Research Associate with the Atlantic and Gulf Coast Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs), she saw a chance to dive back into the field of coastal resilience after a short but instructive break.  

Although her departure from the coast had taken her hundreds of miles inland to Lubbock, Tex., it offered a valuable landscape-level perspective to bring back to the new position. Powell had been working for one of the Department of the Interior Climate Science Centers (CSC), established concurrently with LCCs to help respond to environmental pressures that transcend geographic boundaries by connecting science with on-the-ground management.

In her role as communication and outreach coordinator for the South Central CSC at Texas Tech University, Powell has been on the front lines of climate change, working with leading experts in their fields, though in a different capacity than what she would have expected when she first started her career.

“I was leading and managing projects and initiatives to raise awareness about climate impacts, which was extremely fun and rewarding,” she said, adding, “But I’m not a communications person by training.”

Perhaps not by training, but her diverse experiences communicating scientific information to target audiences - whether in a workshop on flood risks for coastal residents, or a textbook on earth and space science for grade-school students - demonstrate that she is up to the task, and understands its importance.

“I wanted to get back to the space between research, science, and communications, working as a liaison between data, tools, and the people who need them,” she said. But the self-described “physical scientist at heart” (Powell has a PhD in geography with a minor in disaster science management) also wanted to get back to her real interests: coastal issues and climate adaptation.

As a Research Fellow at Louisiana State University’s Coastal Sustainability Studio (CSS), Powell earned her chops in coastal resilience working in a part of the country where coastal communities have been put to the test in recent years by natural and human-caused disasters that will go down in infamy: namely, Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.

Powell served as the climate scientist on an interdisciplinary team of landscape architects, designers, city and urban planners, engineers, and ecologists working on the Louisiana Resiliency Assistance Program. With funding that came through in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, the team worked on resilience planning with 30 communities that were trying to address threats ranging from sea level rise to land subsidence without the resources or technical expertise to do so. “For many of these communities, this was their first community plan, and they didn’t even know what ‘resilience’ meant,” said Powell.

But they did know what was at stake in their communities, and Powell and her team drew knowledge from them. “We held a preliminary workshop where representatives from each community identified issues and challenges so we could respond to their specific needs,” she said, explaining that they developed a suite of resources for the communities that reflected their input, including webinars and workshops in host communities on key topics, a website, and a guidebook of resilience strategies.

The position also involved working with Louisiana Sea Grant to address local impacts from sea level rise for a small Louisiana community. "My role was to create vulnerability maps of the study area of Pointe Aux Chenes -- a small coastal community in Terrebonne Parish that lies on the border of land and marsh or open water and, thus, is among the first coastal LA communities being impacted by rising sea levels," she said.

By combining physical data with traditional ecological knowledge gathered from members of the Point-Aux-Chien Indian Tribe, she was able to spatially depict the community's vulnerability to sea level rise. The maps showed low elevation areas, fragmented marshes, canals that are vulnerable to land loss and erosion, and the locations of levees and other structural projects proposed in the state's Coastal Master Plan.

Concurrent to her work with the CSS at LSU, Powell was working on her dissertation, producing a comparative assessment of how climate extremes are changing across the southeastern United States. She used a core set of 27 indices of extremes for temperature and precipitation that were developed by an international team of climate experts with the intent to produce data for traditionally data sparse regions of the world, and apply those standards to paint a picture of global climate extremes.

As it turns out, the southeastern United States has an interesting story to tell. “There is consistent research showing a warming hole in temperatures for this region, meaning this part of the country hasn’t warmed as rapidly as other parts of the country and world.” Using the indices, Powell was able to show that while extreme maximum temperatures have not risen much over recent decades, minimum temperatures have. Quickly.

“There are far more nights above 75 degrees per year than we used to have - an alarming number, in fact,” she explained.

Beyond just filling in the climate data gap, Powell also looked at how to bridge the gap between the data and the real world, focusing on how small, rural communities are dealing with extremes in their municipal planning.

It came as no surprise that, by and large, they aren’t. She found there was still a disconnect between climate change, and how it is manifesting on the ground, which Powell said can be attributed to a lack of information, a lack of knowledge, and sometimes a combination of the two. “Sometimes people had the information, but didn’t know what to do with it,” she said.

“We have enough data, we understand how climate change is impacting people now, and there are many tools available to help them address these impacts, but we still need more education and communication to show people how to use them effectively.”

That will be the driving force behind her work with the LCC. “This project will be getting me back to some of those issues on coastal resilience, looking at how to deliver information and tools, and also, how to enhance the exchange of information across LCCs to prioritize actions and increase the resilience of both systems and communities,” she said.

In her new role, Powell will focus on fostering collaboration among LCCs along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts toward delivering information and tools that can increase the resilience of communities and coastal resources.

The first step will be to find the best people to lead the charge. “Part of my responsibility will be to convene an Atlantic and Gulf resilience team to focus on coastal issues, identify goals and action items, and provide input on specific deliverables,” said Powell.

With experts encompassing a range of geographic areas and coastal systems, and extensive resources on coastal resilience in this region, Emily and the team will have the collective wisdom and technical knowhow to address major threats to coastal systems. In particular they will look at linkages between physical impacts of sea level rise and storms, the response of coastal ecosystems and species, and the restoration and management approaches to increase the resilience of both these systems and coastal communities. The next step will be to connect the dots between the expertise and the decision makers who need it.

“We have a lot of information, but we need to identify the most effective actions to take based on that information - by looking at costs, benefits, and obstacles to implementation.”

From there, she said, “We can start to produce specific, pointed recommendations that are backed by economic and scientific data, and give people clear choices.” 

Choices that allow people to see themselves as stakeholders in resilience, no matter what they call it.

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