National Academies Awards $5.27M to Understanding Gulf Coastal Systems

Nov. 10, 2020
Six projects aim to improve understanding of how natural processes and human activities interact to affect coastal ecosystems in the US Gulf Coast region.

WASHINGTON — The Gulf Research Program (GRP) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has announced grant awards totaling $5.27 million for six new projects. These projects, planned to span two to three years, aim to improve understanding of how natural processes and human activities interact to affect coastal ecosystems in the US Gulf Coast region. Each of the six projects looks at aspects of water quality, water management, green or natural infrastructure, and/or coastal and flood resilience. 

The focus of the funding opportunity was derived from a recent National Academies consensus report, Understanding the Long-Term Evolution of the Coupled Natural-Human Coastal System: The Future of the U.S. Gulf Coast, and the opportunity was specifically designed to support scientific research that would inform decision-making and natural resource management actions along the Gulf Coast.

The Gulf Coast region is complex, with many interconnections between natural processes (such as rising sea levels, hurricanes, and land sinking) and people’s decisions and activities (including land use, pollution, and industry). Much remains to be understood about how the combination of natural processes and human actions, especially in a changing climate, is affecting not just the distribution of ecosystems like salt marshes, oyster reefs, barrier islands, and mangrove forests, but also their overall health.

“In order to make informed decisions that ensure the US Gulf Coast region remains resilient—and habitable—for future generations, we need to understand much better the connections between natural processes and human activities in the region,” said Laura Windecker, program officer for the GRP. “This grant opportunity encourages research that is actionable to help conserve our valuable ecosystems, while also protecting people’s health and livelihood.”

Each of the six projects focuses on at least one specific interaction between humans and their environment and how it affects a particular component of Gulf Coast ecosystems.

The six projects, listed in alphabetical order by title, are:

A Coupled Natural-Human Framework for Risk Assessment of Coastal Communities from Land Use and Climate Change
Award Amount: $1,113,056
Project Director:  Christopher Anderson (Auburn University)
Project Team Affiliations: Auburn University, University of Georgia, University of South Alabama
Overview: Along the Gulf of Mexico, the conversion of forests to urban or other agricultural uses can exacerbate water pollution and discharge. Land-use change has become particularly apparent along the “Emerald Coast,” a region of coastal Alabama and the Florida panhandle. This project seeks to understand how climate and various socio-economic factors may change forest and landowner decisions; and how forest loss may affect water quality and drainage patterns along the coast. The team will develop a framework that includes 30-year land use and land cover (LULC) scenarios to predict future coastal ecosystem conditions.

Development of Gulf Coast Resiliency Management Plan Using Sentinel Species and Natural Infrastructure
Award Amount: $1,204,180
Project Director:  Elena Craft (Environmental Defense Fund)
Project Team Affiliations:  Environmental Defense Fund, Galveston Bay Foundation, Texas A&M University
Overview: Hurricanes, including Katrina and Harvey, have demonstrated that oil and gas facilities are vulnerable to flooding-related damage — which can trigger the release of petroleum products and chemical contaminants into the air, water, and surrounding neighborhoods. This project will study the human and ecosystem health risks from toxics potentially released from industrial facilities following weather- and climate-related events. It will also examine the possible use of Natural and Nature-Based Features (also known as green or natural infrastructure solutions), including constructed wetlands, to mitigate flooding-related toxic chemical releases. The team is focusing specifically on Galveston Bay in Texas, due to its proximity to vulnerable oil and gas facilities, but findings could also help inform industrial areas along the Louisiana coast.

Ecological and Economic Impacts of Land Use and Climate Change on Coastal Food Webs and Fisheries
Award Amount: $1,107,499
Project Director:  Micheal Allen (University of Florida)
Project Team Affiliations: University of Florida, Florida Water Institute, Nature Coast Biological Station, University of South Florida College of Marine Science
Overview: The Suwannee River estuary supports several imperiled species, multimillion-dollar fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism in Florida’s Nature Coast. This project will assess how past, present, and future climate and land-use scenarios influence the quality of natural resources in the Suwannee River estuary. The team will develop a predictive model to evaluate different watershed management actions, based on water quality and nutrient flow. These predictions, combined with food web modeling, will project how changes in freshwater quality and quantity will influence fish and shellfish populations. Results from the watershed and food web models will also be combined with survey data to evaluate the economic impacts of different land use and climate scenarios.

Ecological and Social Drivers of Mangrove Expansion and Restoration in the Future Gulf of Mexico
Award Amount: $697,868
Project Director: Randall Hughes (Northeastern University)
Project Team Affiliations: Northeastern University, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Geological Survey
Overview: Along the Gulf of Mexico, tropical mangrove forests are expanding beyond their usual boundaries due to warming winters. However, mangroves are displacing salt marshes, which can have cascading effects on the ecosystem and communities that depend on marshes for water filtration and protection from storm damage. This project will synthesize existing knowledge on current mangrove distribution, abundance, and ecosystem function; and analyze what is driving people’s decisions to inhibit or promote mangrove expansion. Results will be translated into a Coastal Resilience decision support tool and a Mangrove Explorer interactive app. The app will help identify which human and ecological communities may be especially impacted by continued mangrove expansion.

OysterFlows: Using Science and Data Visualization to Evaluate Freshwater Impacts to Oysters in the Gulf
Award Amount: $557,171
Project Director: Bryan Piazza (The Nature Conservancy)
Project Team Affiliations: The Nature Conservancy, RTI International
Overview: Oysters and their reefs perform vital functions in the Gulf of Mexico—from filtering water and providing habitat, to supporting one of the last viable oyster fisheries in the world. But no tools exist to assess how the health of Gulf oysters is affected by the quantity and timing of river flows. Without these tools, it is impossible to develop integrated river-management plans, make wise investments in oyster restoration, or facilitate climate adaptation for Gulf oysters and the communities they support. This project will address this need by developing OysterFlows—a decision support tool that models how climate change, upstream water use, and water management decisions made far upstream from the coast are likely to affect oyster resources in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Panacea or Pandora’s Box: Coastal Restoration and Recreational Fishing Livelihoods in Salt Marshes of Coastal Louisiana
Award Amount: $588,579
Project Director: Michael Polito (Louisiana State University)
Project Team Affiliations: Louisiana State University, Rhodes College, University of Central Florida, University of Mississippi
Overview: Louisiana salt marshes provide nearly 1.2 billion pounds of seafood each year, and they remain a popular destination for sport fishing. The distribution and abundance of fish are typically synchronized with freshwater inflow patterns to the marshes. However, it remains unclear whether human activities and natural processes may affect those patterns — and the predictability of fishing forecasts. This project seeks to understand the effects of freshwater inputs into salt marsh ecosystems; and how those activities affect behaviors and livelihoods of the recreational fishing industry. To date, studies focusing on recreational fishing in salt marshes have only considered the effects of human activities on salt marshes. By contrast, this project will assess how human activities and natural processes interact, by combining empirical knowledge, fish distribution and abundance data, and environmental parameters. Model outputs from this project will help predict how ecological and socio-economic changes affect the livelihoods of recreational fishing communities.

All projects selected underwent an external peer-review process. These projects are the winners of the Gulf Research Program’s Healthy Ecosystems Grants Cycle 4 funding competition. For more information about the Gulf Research Program’s grant opportunities, visit

The National Academies’ Gulf Research Program is an independent, science-based program founded in 2013 as part of legal settlements with the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. It seeks to enhance offshore energy system safety and protect human health and the environment by catalyzing advances in science, practice, and capacity to generate long-term benefits for the Gulf of Mexico region and the nation. The program has $500 million for use over 30 years to fund grants, fellowships, and other activities in the areas of research and development, education and training, and monitoring and synthesis.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.