Ensuring a vibrant and thriving coastal zone is one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Today, 60 percent of Virginia’s 8 million people live in the coastal zone. By 2045, the commonwealth’s population is projected to exceed 10 million people, with about 80 percent of Virginians living at the coast.

Accelerating sea-level rise, coastal hazards, and ocean acidification threaten livelihoods, health, and fish and wildlife species throughout the commonwealth and the world. At the same time, rapid economic development presents an opportunity in the face of these challenges.

“The cascading impacts of these stressors represent a formidable problem that can only be addressed by coordinated investment in research, teaching, outreach, and creating a community of action," said Robert Weiss, director of the newly formed Center for Coastal Studies and professor of natural hazards in the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science. "This coordination is part of the Center for Coastal Studies’ mission to nurture coastal-zone related research and education and to create a better understanding of the processes that govern complex issues regarding sustainable solutions in the coastal zone.”

Globally, the coastal zone hosts nearly half of the human population, large ports vital to the global economy, and military installations important to national and global security.  

“The problems of sea-level rise and other coastal threats are complicated and multifaceted,” said Sally C. Morton, interim director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and dean of the College of Science. “Virginia Tech’s Center for Coastal Studies will coalesce the expertise of our renowned researchers to provide viable solutions to communities here in Virginia and around the world.”

The Center for Coastal Studies, housed under the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech, will engage with a diverse set of stakeholders, create a collaborative space for difficult conversations with the public around coastal-zone issues, and establish a Coastal Zone Observatory.

This observatory will be a clearinghouse for data that is collected in the commonwealth and in collaboration with other researchers throughout the state, nation, and world. The data will be made available to local, state, federal governments and collaborators in the private sector.

“The formalized center will continue to raise our visibility and create opportunities for strategic and transdisciplinary partnerships to concentrate on coastal resilience and prosperity with the private sector, public sector, and academia,” said Jennifer Irish, a professor of coastal engineering in the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech and leadership team member of the Center for Coastal Studies.

Anamaria Bukvic, assistant professor of geography from the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and Marie Paretti, professor of engineering education in the College of Engineering, round out the leadership team for the Center for Coastal Studies.

The center comprises 40 junior and senior faculty participants from six different colleges and various scientific disciplines at Virginia Tech. They bring a diverse range of expertise to coastal-zone research, including, but not limited to, geoscience, engineering, geography, urban planning, public health, governance and public policy, fish and wildlife conservation, business information technology, and applied economics. The Center for Coastal Studies faculty are applying innovative and holistic approaches and utilizing skills and technology to interpret data and solve problems.

"This center is an exemplar of the university strategic plan to support areas of excellence to develop Virginia Tech as a 'Destination' for talent in targeted areas. The Fralin Life Sciences Institute is very pleased to support and provide an administrative home for the Center but we also want to emphasize and acknowledge the broad university support from the Institute for Cricital Technology and Applied Science; the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment; several colleges; and the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation that has made implementation a reality," said Dennis Dean, associate director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

The Center for Coastal Studies emerged from the Coastal@VT initiative, which manifested through the Destination Areas and a National Science Foundation Research Traineeship grant (NRT). The Coastal@VT group was initially situated in the Global Systems Science Destination Area, with its relationship to themes of food, infectious disease, and water. As the transdisciplinary effort grew, it also interacted with faculty in other areas, such as Data and Decisions, Intelligent Infrastructure for Human-Centered Communities, and Integrated Security. Collaboration across these Destination Areas was vital to the development of new methodologies, such as advanced quantitative techniques and scenario planning, new technologies, and new virtual interactive tools, to communicate more effectively about hazards, risk, adaptation, and resilience to stakeholders in coastal areas.

“The Center for Coastal studies will play an important role in the transdisciplinary learning and research efforts of the university and will continue to be an integral part of the Destination Area initiative. The center’s efforts are prime examples of the valuable work that can be done when faculty from multiple disciplines and external agencies come together to work toward solutions for complex problems. The center will also yield opportunities for students to gain hands-on problem-solving skills, a key component of the curricular experiences that are part of the Destination Areas,” said Catherine Amelink, acting vice provost for learning systems innovation and effectiveness.

The Center for Coastal Studies at Virginia Tech is an international program office of the Future Earth Coasts Program, a global program to support sustainability and adaption to global change in the coastal zone with additional hubs throughout Europe, Asia, and Australia.

To support its faculty and ensure that their research is aligned with the Center for Coastal Studies' mission, the center will offer seed grants to fund interdisciplinary research and organize various events to facilitate knowledge exchange, new partnerships, and collaboration between researchers and the public and private sector. The Center for Coastal Studies places great emphasis on generating udeful data and policy-relevant research.

Coastal disasters affect people from all walks of life. Improving the resilience of the communities in which these people live requires collaboration among experts and stakeholders from a wide range of different disciplines. To promote resiliency, the Center for Coastal Studies will engage in a program that educates future leaders, practitioners, and researchers in disaster resilience and risk management with support from a National Science Foundation Research Traineeship grant (NRT). 

This inclusive program, also referred to as Disaster Resilience and Risk Management at Virginia Tech (DRRMVT), invites graduate students from all Virginia Tech colleges and departments to learn important interdisciplinary skills while strengthening their knowledge of disaster resilience and risk management. Elements of this program are available to any graduate student in a Virginia Tech degree or non-degree program.

The center is also developing collaborative undergraduate majors and minors with various colleges across Virginia Tech for undergraduates who are interested in focusing on coastal studies.

The Center for Coastal Studies will continue to build upon the outreach and education efforts developed by the Coastal@VT group. The center has created a partnership with the Virginia Seafood Agriculture Research and Extension Center (Virginia Tech Coastal Collaborator) and will continue participating in the Rotating Resilience Roundtables.

In October of 2018, Bukvic co-organized the first 2018 Rotating Resilience Roundtable with Michelle Covi from the Old Dominion University, a two-day event hosted on the Blacksburg campus that offered faculty the opportunity to network with coastal scientists from other Virginia universities and stakeholders. 

The Rotating Resilience Roundtables are designed to respond to the need for cohesive and policy-relevant science that will align and coordinate efforts to improve Virginia’s resilience and adaptation to changing conditions in the coastal zone.

Researchers from Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University, College of William and Mary, University of Virginia, and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science attended and discussed the state’s needs in research and education for coastal resilience. Attendees included faculty working in in many different disciplines, as well as representatives from the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, Wetlands Watch, and the cities of Hampton and Norfolk.

Bukvic and Covi co-organized two more Resilience Roundtables; one at Old Dominion University in April 2019 focused on building cross-institutional capacity to respond to coastal resilience issues in the state. The second roundtable at the Virginia Institution of Marine Sciences in November 2019 focused on changing ecosystems and rural resilience.

Two women are standing and speaking to a crowded group of tables. A large screen is behind one woman and a whiteboard is behind the other. Tables are adorned with food, water bottles, and laptops.
The Rotating Resilience Roundtable event on the Blacksburg campus. Photo courtesy of Kristin Rose Jutras.

“These biannual events serve as a critical platform for knowledge exchange and collaboration between faculty and stakeholders working on coastal resilience. They are designed to allow for small group discussions to stimulate problem identification, critical thinking, and alignment between the emerging coastal issues in the commonwealth and the scientific questions. The future roundtables will tackle different coastal resilience topics and ‘rotate’ among different Virginia universities to engage diverse faculty and stakeholders from all disciplines,” said Bukvic, who is also an affiliated faculty member of the Global Change Center, housed under the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. 

Weiss and Irish were also part of the organizing committee for the 2018 Annual Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Summit: Securing Prosperity in the Coastal Zone. While there are ongoing initiatives to address contemporary coastal issues at the community level, the goal of the summit was to move toward a holistic conversation about promoting prosperity in Virginia's coastal zone and its role in the nation's well-being across geographic and government scales. 

“Proactive, smart, and science-informed policies must be developed to accommodate the region's growing population and ensure its economic growth. These policies require coordination across city, county, and state lines. The VASEM Summit helped to jump-start some of these conversations and collaborations among people who don’t usually meet, and we will continue these discussions and develop a plan of action with the Center for Coastal Studies,” said Weiss.

In March 2019, affiliated faculty members Bukvic and Sarah Karpanty led an interactive Kids’ Tech University talk about the impacts of sea-level rise. The Kids' Tech University program at Virginia Tech is different from other kids' programs because it puts real researchers in front of children to give exciting interactive sessions on those famous "why" questions that have always intrigued children.

Bukvic and Karpanty encouraged students to think about the various lines of evidence that prove that sea level is rising. They then asked the children to think about how that will impact individuals and communities. They concluded with brainstorming about possible solutions and a demonstration showing students how to put together an emergency backpack to be prepared for hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters. 

The Center for Coastal Studies faculty will continue to engage in this type of education and outreach with the public.

“We are excited to go into the community as equal stakeholders with the citizens of Virginia and the world to collaborate and solve these complex coastal problems,” said Weiss.