Coastal resilience is key to preserving our planet’s diversity
08 Dec 2023
Céline Gerson - Group Director, Americas & President Fugro USA
Coastal communities face the imminent impacts of climate change, posing a threat to the diverse communities that thrive in these environments. With nearly 40% of the global population at risk, preserving these vital elements becomes imperative. Fugro’s Group Director for the Americas and President of Fugro USA Céline Gerson, makes a personal case for building coastal resilience through Geo-data to safeguard the histories and ecosystems that have enriched our human experience for generations.
I’ve always had a deep connection to the ocean. Having grown up in several coastal towns in Europe and across Africa, I’ve spent significant time in and around the ocean, surfing, scuba diving, sailing, and experiencing first-hand the beauty of these vibrant communities that have lived in harmony alongside the sea. It’s my upbringing that nurtured my profound curiosity about indigenous cultures and beliefs, and my resolve to safeguard these increasingly fragile environments.
That's why I’ve dedicated my personal time to finding opportunities to return to my early roots and reconnect with the diverse people and cultures of the world. One such experience was on a recent visit to Sumba, an island located east of Bali, Indonesia, where I had the fortunate opportunity to learn about the Sumbanese Marapu culture, whose unique way of life is at risk of disappearing. The Sumbanese are known for their distinct spiritual conception of the world, pointed-roof architecture and megalith monuments honouring their ancestors – customs and traditions unique to them alone.
The Sumbanese people are also deeply tied to the ocean. Each day, during low tide, the local Sumbanese villagers descend onto the beach to gather seagrass and crustaceans for food while their water buffalos enjoy a refreshing bath in the waves. There, where the land and sea converge, is a lifeline for generations.
In Sumba, and as I had in my childhood, I experienced a community whose survival had been interwoven with the ocean for millennia. Yet, today, their way of life is under threat due to climate change. Rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and mounting sea temperatures are endangering not only the rich cultural heritage of communities like Sumba but also their very existence.
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Mother and daughter collecting seagrass on the shore of Sumba
Preventing our cultural history from washing away
Coastal resilience, as defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is a community’s ability to adapt to changing conditions and “bounce back” from hazardous events triggered by climate change. Preserving these communities isn’t just about rebuilding infrastructure after a storm; it’s about preserving the diverse history and natural resources that are at risk of vanishing.
Coastal resilience will require a multidisciplinary approach bespoke to each location, and Geo-data will be fundamental to diagnosing and fully understanding the severe threats facing every community.
According to new research, rising seas could affect 150 million people by 2050, threatening to all but erase some of the world’s great coastal cities. Cities like Cartagena, Colombia, for example.
Once hailed as the Spanish empire’s most important port in South America, this UNESCO World Heritage site boasts an eclectic mix of cultures and stunning architecture, which has been preserved almost in its entirety for nearly 500 years. But despite being able to fend itself against hostile forces for ages, this once powerful military fort now faces a formidable adversary in the form of rising sea levels, land subsidence, and coastal erosion.
In recent years, street flooding has become routine during high tides, and severe storms have submerged portions of the city for months, further accelerating the erosion of the city’s unique cultural heritage.
Recent studies have revealed that Cartagena is sinking at a much more accelerated rate, nearly 50% faster, relative to global sea-level rise, which had not been considered in earlier sea-level projections for the city. These findings indicate that cities like Cartagena must prepare for more challenging futures than anticipated in global assessments and will need to do more to protect their legacies.
Colombia has taken action to enhance its coast by building sea walls to prevent flooding and restoring coral reefs and mangroves to buffer against storm surges, but more detailed geospatial data is needed to understand the complete picture of how the coast is changing.
But I don’t have to travel too far to see how climate change is affecting coastal communities. No place in the United States is more vulnerable to climate change than Florida.
Much like Colombia, Florida faces a severe threat from rising sea levels and coastal erosion, endangering 75% of its population residing along the coastline. Currently, the fastest-growing state in the United States, expanding commercial and housing developments have come at a cost to its coastal wetlands.
Florida has responded by accelerating its leadership in climate policymaking to ensure a coordinated approach to Florida’s coastal and inland resilience. Florida is investing in valuable geo-data, like the airborne lidar technology Fugro is providing to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) for mapping the Atlantic coastal waters of Florida.
Geo-data will help inform critical climate adaptation strategies, including infrastructure development and maintenance, habitat mapping, environmental restoration, and coastal hazard studies to ensure the viability of Florida’s growing population.
Preserving biodiversity – a community’s first defence
Like in Sumba, the history of our civilization has been closely tied to the ocean. While our connection with the coast will not change, our understanding of it can.
The United Nations (UN) declared a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) to advance science-based policies and reverse the declining health of our oceans. In support, Fugro is actively working to transform how global ocean science data is coordinated and shared by demonstrating the role and power of science in providing solutions for ocean sustainability.
Today, we recognise that coral reefs offer more than just a visually stunning ecosystem – they are among our planet’s most diverse and valuable biomes. Covering less than 0.1% of the world’s oceans, coral reefs support over 25% of marine biodiversity while providing essential services to billions, including fisheries, medicinal resources, recreation, and tourism revenue.
More importantly, these diverse environments serve as vital guardians of our coastlines. Coral reefs, along with mangroves, act as natural buffers by absorbing 97% of wave energy. This invaluable function protects lives and property and prevents erosion and flooding. Redirecting funding from costly infrastructure projects toward restoring our natural defences can simultaneously enhance coastal protection while reaping the numerous benefits of a thriving ecosystem.
For me, it’s personal
My decision to join Fugro, in part, was driven by a profound desire to contribute to creating a safe and liveable world. Similar to where the land meets the sea, my personal and professional worlds have converged here at Fugro, allowing me to help preserve the cultural and natural diversity that makes this world an extraordinary place.
If we don’t act, climate change has the potential to erase entire communities, and their irreplaceable contributions to our world will be gone forever. Governments will need precise and accurate information to make decisions confidently, and Geo-data will play a central role in understanding and quantifying these risks. Our responsibility is to work collectively to protect our diverse landscape for future generations.