Baylor Researcher Breaks New Ground With Study on Human Responses to Climate Change

Dec. 10, 2007
News Photo 4358Sara Alexander

by Frank Raczkiewicz

While climate change has been an emerging topic of interest to the world community, little scientific data exists on the vulnerability and resilience of households to climate-related "shocks" and events like hurricanes and prolonged drought. But a Baylor University researcher has received more than $235,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to start a study that looks at coastal communities and how they react to environmental stresses.

Dr. Sara Alexander, an applied social anthropologist at Baylor who conducts much of her research work in Central America, will study different households in several large and small coastal communities in Belize. Alexander and her team will identify vulnerable households in the targeted coastal communities and research how they adapt and cope with major environmental shocks. The Baylor researchers also will measure the household's long-term resilience, an area that has not been extensively researched.

"We are looking into the interaction of knowledge, awareness and action as it relates to the weather," said Alexander, chair of the department of anthropology, forensic science and archaeology at Baylor. "We'll be cataloging what works and what doesn't. We can then identify different behaviors and strategies that lead some families to cope better and emerge stronger after a weather-related event. Those behaviors, once documented, will give us a better picture on how to become more proactive about weather-related events, rather than reactive."

The number of people threatened worldwide by coastal flooding due to climate change could more than triple by 2070 and the value of exposed property could balloon to $35 trillion, according to a report released this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

To conduct the research, Alexander and her team will create a new resilience-measuring index that will look at certain long-term security indicators, like economic, health, social networks, environment, and nutrition. The researchers will then track those indictors over the next two years as different weather-related events naturally occur. The researchers have already developed an index to measure short-term vulnerability. They hope to survey as many as 2,000 households.

"If you are not secure, you are vulnerable," Alexander said. "You might think that the economic status of a certain household correlates with how vulnerable and resilient they are. While that is sometimes the case, there are other important factors as well. We can learn a lot from how they deal with weather-related events."

Also collaborating on this project as a co-investigator is Dr. Susan Stonich, professor of anthropology and environmental studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. Stonich is assisting with the direction of the fieldwork and analysis of the data.

For more information, contact Dr. Alexander at (254) 710-4377.

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