S.C. Sea Grant Consortium

Studying How Things Fall Apart: Exploring Municipal Services System Failures to Help Develop Science-Based Decision-Points in South Carolina Coastal Communities


Coastal communities have approached planning for sea level rise in varying ways. However, many of those methods focus on flooding without necessarily connecting inundation with what happens to the systems that allow us to live in places. Beaufort County is located in the heart of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. It is comprised of multiple sea islands and barrier islands, many of which are predominantly rural. The County is a leader in S.C. on understanding how sea level rise (SLR) and related flooding impacts will affect the county, its residents, and its natural resources.

This project, funded through a $300,000 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant, is intended to shed light on the “so what” part of how sea level rise affects communities by studying how these systems (e.g., transportation, wastewater, drainage, etc.) may be disrupted due to extreme events and sea level rise. By taking a proactive, “break it first” approach, we can then help communities better plan for these failures and, thus, reduce the disruption and damage that will come as sea level continues to rise.

Project Team

The project team is comprised of researchers and staff from the University of South Carolina (USC), College of Charleston, S.C. Department of Natural Resources, Beaufort County, USC’s Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments, and S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.

Project Location

Beaufort County was selected as the study area due to its ongoing relationship with the organizations collaborating on this grant and its continuation of work on understanding how to implement sea level rise and resilience planning. Beaufort County is located in the heart of South Carolina’s Lowcountry and is comprised of multiple sea islands and barrier islands, many of which are predominantly rural.

Project Methodology and Anticipated Results

The project team will identify what systems exist and how they depend on each other. Team members will first characterize groundwater height and salinity, installing 10 wells in four regions of Beaufort County. The team also will engage the community to discuss what residents in the study area already experience and what they are most concerned about. Throughout the project, team members will provide direct input to Beaufort County decision-makers on resilience measures. Continued engagement with residents, community leaders, and stakeholders will be the backbone of the entire project, which is a co-production of knowledge in the truest sense. The team will identify the complex nature of how infrastructure and other systems related to community function fail, along with the social capital implications of system failure. These results, in addition to the groundwater and engagement results, will inform the development of impact timelines based on climate and sea level rise projections, giving decision-makers and residents a deep understanding of when changes to infrastructure and behavior are needed. These components will inform the development of preliminary adaptation pathways and decision-points, which will identify specific actions and timelines for implementation. The County and residents, through the sustained engagement, will inform and co-develop these processes. Finally, the research team will develop, in concert with the County, residents, and stakeholders, the framework for a multicriteria analysis (MCA), which the County can use to prioritize specific decisions as it prepares to make difficult choices for maintaining the way of life in Beaufort County in the future.

More Information

Funding awarded from: U.S. Department of Commerce – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, Climate Program Office

Start date: September 1, 2021

Project partners:

Dr. Brita J. Jessen, Dr. Susan Lovelace, Katie Finegan, Landon Knapp, Matt Gorstein, D’Karia Bascom – S.C. Sea Grant Consortium
Dr. Matthew Nowlin, Dr. Norman Levine – College of Charleston
Dr. Alicia Wilson – University of South Carolina
Dr. Kirstin Dow – University of South Carolina Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments
Abi Locatis Prochaska – S.C. Department of Natural Resources
Robert Merchant – Beaufort County