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Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines

Science. Policy. Education. Outreach. Coastal.

Coastal Hazards & Sea-Level Rise Asset Vulnerability Assessment Protocol

The National Park Service (NPS) Sustainable Operations and Climate Change Branch, in partnership with Western Carolina University’s (WCU) Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines (PSDS), has developed a Coastal Hazards and Climate Change Asset Vulnerability Assessment Protocol. This protocol establishes a standard methodology and set of best practices for conducting vulnerability assessments in the built environment. Standardizing the methodologies and data utilized in these assessments allows managers to compare the vulnerability of coastal park assets across local, regional, and national levels.

A proposed standardized approach to assessing climate change vulnerability was described in a multiple agency (NOAA, NPS, USGS, DOD, NWF, and USFS) document titled “Scanning the Conservation Horizon: A Guide to Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment” (Glick et al., 2011). This document defines the vulnerability of natural resources to climate change as: the extent to which a species, habitat, or ecosystem is susceptible to harm from climate change impacts. Vulnerability under this approach is comprised of three equally weighted metrics or components: exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity:

Vulnerability = Exposure + Sensitivity + Adaptive Capacity

  • Exposure refers to whether a resource or system is located in an area experiencing direct impacts of climate change, such as temperature and precipitation changes, or indirect impacts, such as sea-level rise.
  • Sensitivity refers to how a resource or system fares when exposed to an impact.
  • Adaptive Capacity refers to a resource’s or system’s ability to adjust or cope with existing climate variability or future climate impacts.

While this formula has been successfully applied to natural systems, some aspects are less appropriate for application in the built environment (i.e., buildings, roads, etc.). For example, structures cannot inherently adapt to climate change or other hazards, while natural resources often can (a salt marsh can adapt to changes in sea level by migrating upland, whereas a building cannot). Therefore, NPS and WCU have modified the methodology and formula for conducting vulnerability assessments of assets within national parks. The new modified formula for the vulnerability of the built environment (assets, infrastructure, buildings, transportation, etc.) is as follows:

Vulnerability = Exposure + Sensitivity

For this methodology, adaptive capacity of an asset is evaluated separately and is not included in the vulnerability score. This does not mean that understanding the adaptive capacity of an asset is not important. The range of adaptation strategies or options available for key vulnerable assets within a national park is the final and perhaps most important step in the overall analysis, as any adaptation actions taken for an asset will help reduce its exposure or sensitivity, which reduces vulnerability.

One goal of this protocol is to standardize methods for evaluating the exposure of NPS assets to coastal hazards and climate change. This includes the standardization of data inputs (i.e. widely available, established data) that will allow the application of a consistent methodology among units. Another goal is to create a more complete and effective set of indicators for assessing the sensitivity of assets to coastal hazards. The focus for this protocol is on structures and transportation assets in the NPS asset database, but it could be adapted to other resources.

Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines
Old Student Union
Western Carolina University
Cullowhee, NC 28734