Helping Communities Cope with Climate Change
Climate change is very real for people living on the North Carolina coast where Erin Seekamp works. Hurricane Florence dumped 20-30 inches of rain on many coastal towns in September 2018, where residents already face problems with flooding and erosion and will eventually see rising sea levels. Many are looking for ways to adapt to their changing environment and preserve their cultural landmarks, as well as the tourism jobs that depend on them.
“They see that climate change is happening. There’s a recognition that our tangible heritage is at risk,” said Seekamp, who received her doctorate in 2006 from the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources.
Seekamp, now an associate professor and Extension leader at North Carolina State University, specializes in climate change adaptation, particularly as it relates to cultural resources and tourism. Her current work grew out of her studies at U of I, which focused on how attitudes toward wilderness management changed during public forums. She credits the entire college and her advisors, former U of I Professor Troy Hall and Professor Emeritus Chuck Harris, with helping launch her career.
There’s a recognition that our tangible heritage is at risk. Erin Seekamp
“There was such a strong commitment to students across the whole college,” she said. “The education I received at University of Idaho was so important to my development.”
In her current work, Seekamp does a lot of listening — to resource managers, community leaders and residents to help identify their adaptive capabilities and their values — because some hard choices must be made. Not every historic building and cultural site can be saved.
In 2016, Seekamp piloted a project that helped prioritize the adaptation of historic sites at Cape Lookout National Seashore, using values defined by the community. She is now developing a values-based process for the National Park Service and will soon travel to Rome to work with colleagues on a similar international project.
While her work has reached national and international scales, Seekamp said her biggest challenge is working with local communities that have few options. For instance, one African-American community in North Carolina has owned its coastal land since slavery ended. Now, residents face dual threats of economic hardship and recurring flooding, and many cannot afford to renovate their homes to meet new flood insurance requirements.
“They are looking for ways to hold on to this place that means something to them despite change that is already happening,” Seekamp said.
While she cannot solve their problems immediately, in the long term, Seekamp’s research can inform decisions like adjustments to the National Flood Insurance Program. Her work in the Southeast U.S. was also included in the fourth National Climate Assessment released in November 2018.
Article by Sara Zaske, College of Natural Resources
Published in the spring 2019 issue of Here We Have Idaho.