Social Vulnerability to Sea-Level Rise

Principal Investigator: Marguerite Madden
Co-Principal Investigator: Dean Hardy

The potential for harm to people from environmental hazards (for example, floods, hurricanes, and droughts) occurs from interaction of both social and environmental factors. This potential for harm is what researchers and emergency management professionals often refer to as social vulnerability. When environmental changes or hazards negatively affect an individual, household, or community, the ability to respond and recover often varies greatly and unevenly across social difference. By social difference, we are referring to differences in income, race, ethnicity, age, education, and gender. In this project, we investigated both the social and environmental factors that are expected to lead to an increased social vulnerability of future populations living in the southeastern U.S. coastal regions. Specifically for this project, we focused on the intersection of social characteristics that increase social vulnerability and predictions of future flooding that will be caused by sea-level rise. The project was motivated by our primary research question: How can quantitative and qualitative measures of vulnerability be combined to produce more robust assessments of social vulnerability to sea-level rise?

We chose the Georgia coast as our project study site in 2015 for a few key reasons. First, it has a rapidly growing population, one that increased 15% between the years 2000 and 2010. Many of Georgia’s coastal residents have social characteristics that are typically associated with increased social vulnerability to environmental hazards. Second, much of Georgia’s coast is low-lying land with high tidal ranges of 6 to 10 feet and increased flooding from rising seas. Further, nearly 110 square miles of land is less than 2.1 feet above the current high tide line.

To achieve our project’s key goal of investigating how social vulnerability to sea-level rise would change over the first half of this century, we projected the coastal population and some of its key characteristics out to the year 2050 to assess risk (social vulnerability x physical exposure) at the US Census tract scale (Figure 1). Employing social science methods that included interviews with 41 local residents and over 100 hours of observation of coastal life during nearly a year of ethnographic fieldwork, we also investigated how structural racism combined with rising seas will increase the potential for harm to the African American population (36% as of 2010) living on Georgia’s coast.

Risk to sea-level rise under the fast scenario (2.1 feet by 2050).

Figure 1: Risk to sea-level rise under the fast scenario (2.1 feet by 2050).

Our project’s first key finding is that the future population of Georgia’s coast that could be directly exposed to flooding from sea-level rise by 2050 is between 12,500 and 42,000 people. This range depends on the rate of sea-level rise. Our sea-level rise scenarios ranged from eight to 25 inches by the year 2050 and are based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s low and high scenarios. For the fastest scenario, nearly 9,400 people are projected to have higher levels of social vulnerability, a substantial increase of 116% over estimates based on the 2010 population. The results of our population model show that Georgia’s coastal population is projected to increase between the years 2010 and 2050 by approximately 48%, with an average growth rate of 0.98% per year and reaching nearly 745,000 people (Figure 2). Compared with the U.S. Census’s 2008-2012 American Community Survey estimates, our model shows that by the year 2050 the percentages of coastal Georgia’s population with less than a high school education is projected to decrease from 11.3 % to 9.3% and those living in poverty is projected to increase from 17.6% to 18.5%. Our population model results also show a demographic shift for coastal Georgia to a majority non-white population from 44% in 2010 to 60% by the year 2050.


Our second key finding is that acknowledgement and acceptance—by the professional community working on sea-level rise—of race as a process of enabling or constraining meaningful engagement, rather than treating it merely as a demographic category, will improve mitigation of social vulnerability in underrepresented communities. We define this explicit practice as race-aware adaptation planning, which is in opposition to current practices that we define as colorblind adaptation planning. Race-aware adaptation planning is one pragmatic method for mitigating uneven social vulnerability to future flooding from sea-level rise by recognizing how the historical processes of racial discrimination continue to create racial inequality in access to resources—resources that will be needed to adapt to rising seas.

The third key finding is that an “integrative vulnerability approach” makes space for recursively reflecting on modeled outcomes of social vulnerability to sea-level rise as well as the social and cultural processes that continuously shape the uneven vulnerabilities that will be realized across social difference as seas continue rising this century. An integrative vulnerability approach draws on mixed methods and epistemological pluralism (i.e., multiple ways of knowing) to analyze outcome and contextual forms of vulnerability concurrently. This third key finding conveys a crucial result of our project’s investigation into the role of social difference, specifically racial difference, in creating increased potential for harm to communities of color. The idea that being a racial minority indicates increased levels of social vulnerability need not necessarily persist into the future. In other words, if what it means to be a non-white person changes in society over the coming decades as it has historically (e.g., as racism has changed through eras of slavery, Jim Crow, and colorblind periods), our population model’s projection of social vulnerability will need to be altered accordingly. Social vulnerability is not a static state, but a multi-dimensional process. This process is dependent, in part at least, on social institutions and attitudes about racial difference and identity. In other words, social configurations of power and racial inequality are mutable.

Funding support for this project was provided by a National Science Foundation, Geography and Spatial Sciences Program, Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (Award #1458978), the UGA Franklin College Center for Research and Engagement in Diversity, the UGA Integrative Conservation PhD Program, the UGA Center for Integrative Conservation Research, the UGA Graduate School, and the UGA Center for Geospatial Research. More information about this project including an extended abstract and the Co-PI’s dissertation are available online here.


Hardy, R. D. 2016. Rough Seas Ahead: Navigating the Inequalities of Future Sea-Level Rise. PhD dissertation, University of Georgia, Athens, GA. (link)

Hardy, R. D. 2016. Getting to know sea-level rise: Part 3, impacts. The Darien News. 8 September.

Hardy, R. D. 2016. Getting to know sea-level rise: Part 2, Measurements. The Darien News. 25 August.

Hardy, R. D. 2016. Getting to know sea-level rise: Part 1, Causes. The Darien News. 28 January.

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