Assessing Climate Change Risk of Rural Coastal Plain Communities (2023-2024)


Saltwater intrusion and sea level rise (SWISLR) are rapidly altering the structure and function of coastal plain ecosystems and placing new constraints on coastal communities’ lifestyles. Previous scholarship has mainly focused on the impact of SWISLR on shorelines and coastal cities, but recent research has shown that communities further inland also experience effects of SWISLR in the form of increased flooding and higher salt concentration in both water and soil.

Though SWISLR is a global issue, its effects vary greatly across regions and communities. This variation leads to governance challenges that include agreeing upon the scope and nature of the problem, working collaboratively with impacted communities and equitably allocating resources to combat SWISLR. Despite SWISLR’s widespread impact, most research efforts up to this point have been localized and disconnected. 

Project Description

The major goals of this project are to amplify the voices of rural community members currently facing SWISLR and synthesize currently available research on SWISLR impacts. 

First, the team will review and synthesize existing research pertaining to SWISLR in the North American Coastal Plain through a curated data repository. Using the data repository, team members will examine survey and interview methods and identify gaps in existing SWISLR scholarship.

Next, the team will create their own survey design and interview scripts and create an exhaustive list of regional stakeholders to finalize the sample population and dissemination plan for the survey and interviews. Team members will then work together on a methods paper containing the survey, interview script and population. 

In the summer of 2024, team members will disseminate the survey and conduct the interviews.

The outcomes of this team’s work will be shared with the National Science Foundation’s Research Coordination Network, which is designed to facilitate communication and collaboration among scientists in new and emerging research areas.

Anticipated Outputs

Peer-reviewed meta-analysis paper of current SWISLR studies throughout North American Coastal Plain; contact list of organizations researching SWISLR or working with communities facing SWISLR impacts; study design for coastal community survey and interview study; data repository of SWISLR information to be housed on SWISLR website

 Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 5 graduate students and 5 undergraduate students. Interested students may come from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, such as biology, ecology, political science, history, sociology and geography. Necessary research skills will be taught throughout the semester, but an initial understanding of scientific literature would be beneficial. Students should be interested in environmental protection and sustainability. Local knowledge of assigned regions will be helpful for the project, so students who have lived or worked in coastal regions will be prioritized.

Students on the team will gain experience planning a social science research project, including understanding Institutional Review Board (IRB) procedures, creating research questions and translating them into survey and interview questions, and conducting original qualitative research through surveys and interviews. 

Team members will also have the opportunity to connect with and present to a network of scientists and practitioners: The Saltwater Intrusion and Sea Level Rise Research Coordination Network. Students will be actively engaged in monthly webinars with this network and will be invited to attend the 2024 all-hands meeting to present their work.

Team members will work in pairs based on regional interests and disciplinary expertise. Regional pairs will work together throughout the week, and the full team will meet once a week to share information and progress. 

Kiera O’Donnell will serve as project manager.

Student travel opportunities are to be determined, but some team members may travel to coastal communities of North Carolina over the summer of 2024 to conduct interviews.

This project also includes a related Data+ project for Summer 2023 ; there is a separate application process for students who are interested in this optional component. 


  • Summer 2023 (optional): Data+ students: Seek IRB approval; complete first round of data synthesis and regional mapping
  • Fall 2023: Analyze existing SWISLR research from data repository; create interview and survey script; update IRB
  • Spring 2024: Identify regional stakeholders and study population (coastal communities impacted by SWISLR); write up final methods paper
  • Summer 2024 (optional): Disseminate survey; conduct in-depth interviews with respondents on North Carolina coast


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See related Data+ project, Assessing Climate Change Risk of Rural Coastal Plain Communities (2023).

View of a coastal plain.

Team Leaders

  • Emily Bernhardt, Arts & Sciences-Biology
  • Ryan Emanuel, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Kiera O'Donnell, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences–Biology–Postdoc

/graduate Team Members

  • Emily Klein, Global Health - MSc
  • Braydon Madson, Public Policy Studies-PHD
  • Wenrui Qu, Masters of Public Policy

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Gabrielle Moreau, Robertson Scholarship - UNC
  • Heejae Park, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Nathan Yang, Computer Science (BS)

/zcommunity Team Members

  • The Saltwater Intrusion and Sea Level Rise Research Coordination Network