Challenges of Analyzing Vulnerability

Because of the complexity of interactions within and the variance among coupled human-environment systems, integrated vulnerability and adaptation analyses often rely

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New Orleans, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, showing Interstate 10 at West End Boulevard, looking toward Lake Pontchartrain.This photo is from the U.S. Coast Guard's initial Hurricane Katrina damage assessment overflights of New Orleans. SOURCE: U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi.

New Orleans, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, showing Interstate 10 at West End Boulevard, looking toward Lake Pontchartrain.This photo is from the U.S. Coast Guard's initial Hurricane Katrina damage assessment overflights of New Orleans. SOURCE: U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi.

on place-based (local and regional) assessments for decision making (e.g., Cutter et al., 2000; O'Brien et al., 2004; Turner et al., 2003b; Watson et al., 1997). However, with few notable exceptions (e.g., Clark et al., 1998; Cutter et al., 2000), there is little empirical research on the vulnerability of places, communities, economies, and ecological systems in the United States to climate change, nor is there much empirically grounded understanding of the range of adaptation options and associated constraints (Moser, 2009a; NRC, 2010a).

The development of common metrics and frameworks for vulnerability and adaptation assessments is needed to assist cross-sectoral and interregional comparison and learning. While some research has focused on useful outputs for decision making and adaptation planning (Luers et al., 2003; Moss et al., 2002; Polsky et al., 2007;

Schmidtlein et al., 2008), developing comparative metrics has been challenging due to a lack of baseline data and insufficient monitoring; difficulty in measuring critical and dynamic social, cultural, and environmental variables across scales and regions; limitations in accounting for the indirect impacts of adaptation measures; and uncertainties regarding changes in climate variability, especially changes in the frequency or severity of extreme events, which often dominate vulnerability (Eakin and Luers, 2006; NRC, 2010a; O'Brien et al., 2004).

Assessing adaptive capacity has also been difficult because of its latent character; that is, although capacity can be characterized, it can only be "measured" after it has been realized or mobilized. Hence, adaptive capacity can often only be assessed based on assumptions about different factors that might facilitate or constrain response and action (Eakin and Luers, 2006; Engle and Lemos, 2010) or through the use of model projections. Progress here will rely on improved understanding of human behavior relevant to adaptation; institutional barriers to adaptation; political and social acceptability of adaptation options; their economic implications; and technological, infrastructure, and policy challenges involved in making certain adaptations.

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