Articles | Volume 2, issue 1
Earth Surf. Dynam., 2, 35–45, 2014

Special issue: Frontiers in river, coastal and estuarine morphodynamics

Earth Surf. Dynam., 2, 35–45, 2014

Research article 24 Jan 2014

Research article | 24 Jan 2014

Threshold effects of hazard mitigation in coastal human–environmental systems

E. D. Lazarus E. D. Lazarus
  • Environmental Dynamics Laboratory, Earth Surface Processes Research Group, School of Earth & Ocean Sciences, Cardiff University, Main Building, Park Place, Cardiff CF10 3AT, UK

Abstract. Despite improved scientific insight into physical and social dynamics related to natural disasters, the financial cost of extreme events continues to rise. This paradox is particularly evident along developed coastlines, where future hazards are projected to intensify with consequences of climate change, and where the presence of valuable infrastructure exacerbates risk. By design, coastal hazard mitigation buffers human activities against the variability of natural phenomena such as storms. But hazard mitigation also sets up feedbacks between human and natural dynamics. This paper explores developed coastlines as exemplary coupled human–environmental systems in which hazard mitigation is the key coupling mechanism. Results from a simplified numerical model of an agent-managed seawall illustrate the nonlinear effects that economic and physical thresholds can impart into coastal human–environmental system dynamics. The scale of mitigation action affects the time frame over which human activities and natural hazards interact. By accelerating environmental changes observable in some settings over human timescales of years to decades, climate change may temporarily strengthen the coupling between human and environmental dynamics. However, climate change could ultimately result in weaker coupling at those human timescales as mitigation actions increasingly engage global-scale systems.