Today, 60 percent of Virginia’s 8 million people live in the coastal zone. By 2045, the commonwealth’s population is projected to exceed 10 million people, with about 80 percent of Virginians living at the coast.

This increase in coastal population creates opportunities for innovation, technology, and commerce while presenting acute challenges for the reliability of clean water, power, and transportation, as well as for public health and national security.

To address these challenges and at the request of the Virginia Academy of Science Engineering, and Medicine (VASEM), Virginia Tech researchers Robert Weiss and Jennifer Irish of the Coastal@VT initiative led the organizing committee for the 2018 VASEM Summit: Securing Prosperity in the Coastal Zone.

Each year, VASEM provides a forum for important science and technology issues facing the state and the nation.  

While a number of groups in Virginia are active in ongoing initiatives to address contemporary coastal issues at the community level, the 2018 summit brought together diverse stakeholders in research, industry, and government to move toward a holistic conversation about how to address the current and emerging issues in the coastal region. Co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner, the event was held on Nov. 7 and 8 at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond.

“Our goals for the VASEM Summit were to begin a dialogue around the interdisciplinary issues related to coastal prosperity, and one that would engage the private sector, public sector, and academia equally. We also wanted to bring the universities of Virginia together to create a collaborative environment to address coastal issues,” said Irish, a professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech.

The summit format intentionally created active-engagement opportunities for attendees to begin meaningful dialogues on assets, stressors, and opportunities related to coastal prosperity. In addition to high-level oral presentations and directed discussion periods, a particular highlight of the event was a lively poster session that showcased critical scientific and technological advances, as well as Virginia’s breadth of expertise in the area of coastal zone issues.

“Proactive and smart, science-informed policies must be developed to accommodate the region's growing population and ensure its economic growth. These policies require coordination across city, county, and state lines. The VASEM Summit helped to jump-start some of these conversations and collaborations among people who don’t usually meet,” said Weiss, an associate professor of geosciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech.

In addition to Virginia Tech, the full organizing committee was a multi-institutional collaboration that included VASEM board members from industry, the U.S. Air Force, George Mason University, University of Virginia, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Virginia Sea Grant, Old Dominion University, and the College of William and Mary.

The first day of the summit began with a welcome from Patricia Dove, president of VASEM and University Distinguished Professor of the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech.  She noted that VASEM summits always feature topics of interest to Virginia and have ranged from big data and transportation to precision medicine and infectious disease. She also reminded the group they were about to embark on a unique event that was just a first step to approaching coastal challenges through an integrated and multidisciplinary approach.

“It’s a big job to tackle the tangled issues that we face in the coastal region and achieve real outcomes. Professors Irish and Weiss recognized this and provided fantastic leadership throughout the summit organization process, and I was thrilled to watch their vision emerge as diverse groups made first-time connections, and I already see new interactions and synergies. These collaborations are important because as someone who teaches oceanography here at Virginia Tech, I can tell you that every expertise is needed to overcome coastal challenges. In the still-bigger picture, I am particularly excited because providing a multi-institution forum to address issues facing Virginia, and promoting future leaders is what VASEM is all about,” said Dove. 

The sessions during the first day focused on the increased frequency of recurrent flooding events, sea level rise, environmental impacts, and data science.

The keynote dinner talk was presented by Rear Adm. Ann Philips, the newly appointed Special Assistant to the Governor for Coastal Adaptation and Protection. She noted the challenges of rising sea levels along the Virginia coast, calling it a critical national issue.

“We have a water-based economy, and the response to sea-level rise along the coast must be addressed by the local, state, and federal levels,” said Phillips.  

The second day of the summit began with a keynote by Tom Farrell, president and CEO of Dominion Energy, who spoke about the changes in energy resources and importance of clean, reliable, and sustainable energy.

“Solar and wind energy hold the most growth potential. And they are very popular. Dozens of cities have committed themselves to 100 percent renewable energy. So have scores of corporations. A majority of the public wants to use as much renewable energy as possible,” said Farrell.

The sessions during the second day focused on the stressors and opportunities related to coastal sustainability and environmental protection.

“The responses to the summit were incredibly positive. We received excellent feedback from the government agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United States Geological Survey. There was appreciation for broadening the conversation around coastal resilience to more directly address public health. The universities that participated are interested in following up and forming collaborations with other attendees from the VASEM Summit,” said Irish.

One way in which these dialogues will continue is through a VASEM-led study whose specific focus is emerging from the collaborations created by the summit.

Steven Holbrook, professor and head of the Department of Geosciences at Virginia Tech said, “I’m certain that the collaborations forged at the summit will pay off for the commonwealth and for Virginia Tech for a long time to come. Virginia Tech’s departments and centers provide cross-disciplinary expertise that, together with our role as the commonwealth’s land-grant university, make us uniquely positioned to catalyze rapid progress on the basic science, social and economic impacts, and engineering solutions in the coastal zone.  The Department of Geosciences, for example, has world-class talent in coastal hazards, sea-level rise, groundwater quality and quantity, and subsurface imaging — all of which can be deployed to solve coastal problems."

VASEM was established in 2013 and provides an independent resource of technical expertise in science, engineering, and medicine to the commonwealth. Its mission also includes promoting investments in job growth, research, and solutions to challenges in science, engineering, and technology, and fostering new collaborations between businesses and Virginia universities and colleges.

Coastal@VT is part of the Global Systems Science Destination Area supported by the Fralin Life Science Institute at Virginia Tech with a mission to foster coastal resilience and prosperity through transdisciplinary research, education, and engagement.

Dennis Dean, director of the Fralin Life Science Institute, said, "bringing together various academic centers of excellence, local and government officials, and policy experts to tackle such an important problem is a terrific example of how these different assets can collaborate for the benefit of the commonwealth. It is also particularly gratifying that the rich experience of the military and business communities in this area is also being openly shared. This is truly why VASEM was initiated, and members throughout the commonwealth should be congratulated for taking the lead in this critical endeavor."

The Coastal@VT vision is to be a catalyst for finding innovative solutions to sustain the development of coastal built and natural environments through diversity and inclusion in research, education, and engagement. Coastal@VT is led by Robert Weiss, associate professor of geosciences, from the College of Science and Anamaria Bukvic, research assistant professor of geography, from the College of Natural Resources and Environment.