By Erika Lower, Summer Science Writing Intern
On the morning of July 10, representatives from more than two dozen academic institutions, NGOs, federal agencies, and local governments gathered in an Old Dominion University (ODU) conference room to play an unusual game. Participants in the Hampton Roads Sea Level Rise/Flooding Adaptation Forum drew abstract shapes on scraps of paper and worked together to describe the scribbles as something that would benefit their communities or the environment. What could get a group of scientists, city planners, engineers, and even federal officials playing a game straight out of a theater class?
Icebreakers and improv games are based on collaboration, creative problem-solving, and clear discussion, explained Jenifer Alonzo, who led the activity. Alonzo is a theater professor and member of the University’s Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative. She says these same elements of out-of-the-box thinking are vital to communicating the public impact of sea level rise and coastal flooding–the issue at the core of the Adaptation Forum.
The Adaptation Forum is a workshop for city, regional, and federal officials to share information on how to address challenges posed by sea level rise. July’s event is the third in a four-part series co-sponsored by Virginia Sea Grant, ODU, and the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. The Forum focused on best practices for communicating the risks and realities of coastal flooding to local communities, a process that has proven challenging despite the realized destruction caused by Nor’easters and hurricanes of the last couple of years.
The low-lying terrain of Hampton Roads makes it particularly vulnerable to flooding and storm surges. Due to rising sea levels and changing climate patterns, the frequency and severity of these threats is predicted to increase over the coming years. City officials will need to know the best ways to prepare their districts for potential emergencies but also ensure that their citizens are informed about the risks they face.
“It’s often hard for government to communicate about hazards because we tend to feel ambivalent about government,” said Katherine Rowan, director of the science communications graduate program at George Mason University. In her presentation on earning trust and explaining complexities in climate science, she pointed out that while people are interested in learning about issues in their communities, they generally prefer to do so on their own terms. Rather than relying on public service announcements to keep citizens informed, Rowan explained, a mix of interactive approaches were often more successful at generating discussions about environmental risks.
Margaret Davidson, acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, suggests that the most effective way to get people to understand the realities of sea level rise is by letting the residents themselves tell stories.
“Since the time of Homer, we’ve learned that the best way to communicate important information is through stories,” said Davidson, who delivered the keynote address at the meeting. “Stories that use local references have familiarity and resonance, which gives them a great deal of power.”
Encouraging people to talk about their own experiences with flooding is a valuable way in which administrators can connect with the communities they serve. Sharing information about sea level rise in non-traditional ways, from hosting potlucks to creating interactive websites, can successfully engage individuals uninterested in traditional town hall-style meetings. And while large information sessions can effectively reach a broad audience, individual conversations with concerned members of the public can be just as important.
“It’s the ‘each one, teach one’ philosophy,” Davidson said. “We are all someone’s trusted resource.”