Network Members of the Month: Phyllis Grifman

Phyllis Grifman is the Associate Director of the Sea Grant program at the University of Southern California.

Our job, is to help coastal communities understand the technical aspects [of sea level rise impacts], and to develop their capacity for being able to cope with the problems that are not future problems, they’re problems that sometimes we see right now, and that we will be seeing into the future, undoubtedly.” – Phyllis Grifman

What does the Sea Grant program do in California?

The role that Sea Grant plays is to conduct research and to make sure that that research gets out to where it’s needed by decision makers and the public. Unlike other science programs that are exclusively for other scientists and published in journals, our research has to be relevant to coastal communities, to the state, to the region, and to the nation. We have to make sure that the results of funded research are available. At USC, we’re an urban program so, we focus on issues having to do with the urban ocean, the urban coast.

What are some of the issues you all are facing on the urban coast?

Some of the urban coastal issues have to do with coastal water quality. In Southern California, almost every inch of ocean space is claimed by some user. We have multiple use issues among fishermen, recreational and commercial, people who use the ocean for recreation, recreational boaters, sewage disposal, energy development, and -maybe in the future- alternative energy development, and power generation. One of the roles that we play is as the intermediary amongst all of these interests to ensure that everybody has a voice, and that everybody’s uses are acknowledged and respected.

Some of the other issues that we deal with have to do with the science literacy in the urban core, and with changing shorelines and sea level rise. There’s a big focus in our program on the effects of sea level rise. We’ve been working very closely with US Geological Survey; they have a hazard flood mapping program called CoSMoS, Coastal Storm Modeling System. The role that we play is in helping coastal communities to understand the very complicated modeling that is taking place to predict the effects of sea level rise. No models are perfect, but some models work. And, this one seems to be very well vetted, and so our role is to take some of the maps generated by the CoSMoS models to bring them to coastal communities, and then to help them understand the options that they have for adaptation going forward.

What are some of the unique challenges of competing multiple uses in Southern California?

In a region, like many around the world, that’s challenged by climate change, one of the tasks is to make sure that our environments here are as healthy and robust as they can be. In California we’ve developed a network of marine protected areas. That was mandated by the California Marine Life Protection Act, and one of the characteristics of marine protected areas is that they have multiple species and ecosystems in each network. Those ecosystems help us to be able to ensure that marine life will have some advantage against changes in ocean temperature, changes in ocean chemistry, like acidification, and [that our oceans] are still producing fish and multiple species of algaes. Those ecosystems services are ones that we, in Southern California, depend on so much for both our well-being emotionally, ecologically, and economically. The tourist industry in Southern California is huge; so much of it is dependent on beaches, and beaches are at the front line of challenges having to do with climate change and sea level rise.

What has Sea Grant been doing to help communities adapt to sea level rise in Southern California?

Sea Grant’s been working on a program called Adapt LA since 2011; it’s an attempt to help coastal communities manage the effects of sea level rise. We started in 2011 surveying coastal community managers to find out what they knew and what they needed. We found that there was an acknowledgement that problems with sea level rise might be coming, but very little understanding of what those issues might be and how they might affect individual communities.