Research Activities

Conservation Leadership
IEEE/OES Plastic in the Ocean Initiative
Marine Debris VCC
Earth Viability VCC


The research focus of MARI at ODU is on the Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) knowledge needed to cope with the emerging Anthropocene Risks and other Global Catastrophic Risks (GCRs).

A fundamental aspect in the development of sustainable communities is connected with decision making under foresight. Behavorial research shows that we hardly consider rational facts in our decision making if we are not worried.

Bringing STI knowledge to use depends on a close link between the knowledge and those who can make use of the knowledge in social applications. The co-design and co-creation of the STI knowledge with societal stakeholders is mandatory in order to ensure that this knowledge corresponds to their knowledge needs and is actionable in the context of a sustainable development of the coastal zone in the region.

At MARI, research has a focus on:

  • hazard probability, including a detailed description of the hazards;
  • improving foresight and, specifically, the development of a decadal sea-level forecasting service;
  • understanding vulnerability to extreme sea levels and slowly changing mean sea levels and the development of strategies for resilient and adaptive coastal communities;
  • risk assessments as a basis for risk reduction through managed exposure;
  • increasing public risk awareness and risk literacy, as a basis for a thorough risk reduction;
  • participation in societal deliberations on societal response to a changing risk spectrum.


Taking a risk-based approach, where risk is the product of hazard probability, vulnerability, and exposure, the STI knowledge has to comprise an understanding of the three factors in the risk equation. An example where this approach has resulted in significant disaster risk reduction is the seismic hazard. Today, we have the STI knowledge to develop resilient urban areas in regions with high seismic hazards, and in a number of high-risk areas such as the Western US and Japan, this knowledge has been use to reduce the disaster risk dramatically.

Similar to the seismic hazard, we have very little control over the probability of sea-level hazards. However, we can reduce vulnerability and have full control over exposure.

Sea-level hazards have two distinct parts, one being the destructive impact of extremes such as storm surges often combined with high tides, large waves, and tsunamis, and the other being a slow change in mean sea level leading to long-term impacts on ecosystems, the built environment, and the social fabric embedded in the built environment. Our understanding of the probability density functions (PDFs) of sea-level hazards is well developed and research is rapidly refining this knoweldge. Particularly with respect to extremes, increasingly we have predictive capabilities, and the quantification of the PDFs is making progress.

For the secular changes in sea-level, a shift is taking place from deterministic attempts to predict century-scale sea level to a statistical approach based on a PDF for decadal to century-scale sea level changes. In the former case, the goal is to provide predictions with narrow uncertainty ranges as a basis for the planning of coastal land use and infrastructure, while in the latter case, land use and infrastructure planning has to take into account the PDF based on a decision of acceptable risk.

In both approaches, it is important to understand the vulnerability of coastal ecosystems and communities to sea-level hazards. Here the STI knowledge is in its infancy and, even more so, STI knowledge how to reduce vulnerability urgently needs to be developed. The transition to coastal urban areas that are resilient under extreme events requires a transdisciplinary approach to STI creation. The understanding of adaptive capabilities that can cope with the slow, also potentially much more rapid than current changes in mean sea level also is a complex task involving economic, social and environmental aspects. For the application of the STI knowledge a linkage between science and society is mandatory.

Reducing risk by reducing exposure is not a complex issue in terms of the understanding, but it is complex in terms of its social and economic implications. Risk awareness is a fundamental prerequisite for the willingness to reduce risk by reducing exposure. This is particularly difficult where reducing exposure implies to give up options with high economic and recreational values. The economic and social value of the coastal zone makes it particularly difficult to reduce exposure to sea-level hazards.

A particular challenge of sea-level hazards is the fact that larger changes exceeding 0.5 to 1 m per century cannot be excluded scientifically. However, on the one hand, planning for such large changes is economically not feasible unless we are quite sure that they will actually happen. On the other hand, the consequences of a rapid sea level rise would be disastrous on a global scale if this would happen without any preparation and adaptation. It is therefore crucial to detect an increased probability of a large rapid rise in a timely manner. Such a large rapid rise could only result from a rapid melting of large land-based ice masses, particularly those in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. It is therefore important to have a monitoring systems that can alert us if an increased melting takes place and to have models that can predict the trajectory of this melting on a decadal time scale. This would then provide early warnings for a rapid sea level rise leaving on the order of a decade to prepare the coastal zone for this mega event.

A particular challenge for risk management related to local sea level rise is a normalcy bias or normality bias (see e.g., Wikipedia), which results from humanity's experience of 6,000 years of unusually stable sea level. This period of a rather stable sea level allowed human settlements to be established in large river deltas and to benefit from the ecosystem services and logistical advantages these areas provide. It also created the normalcy bias that sea level does not change very fast and that coast lines do not move fast horizontally. Climate change will bring this period to an end, and we already see signs of an accelerated sea level rise. However, overcoming the normalcy bias and facilitating a paradigm shift may require a number of disasters that illustrate the impacts of a changing sea level.


A focus of MARI is on the assessment of Earth observation needs and an analysis to what extent the available Earth observations satisfy the needs. A tool used for this analysis is the SEE-IN Knowledge Base developed for the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). This work is built on the experience with User the Requirements Registry (URR) of GEOSS.


Assessing the Anthropocene Risks of Sargassum and Marine Debris

Project Period: Since August 2018.

The recent transition from the Holocene into the Anthropocene has created a number of Anthropocene risks that pose severe challenges on all scales from local to global (Key et al., 2019). Many of these risks constitute global catastrophic risks (GCRs; Avin et al., 2018), including climate change, ocean warming and acidification, extinction and resource depletions. The ocean is experiencing large and rapid changes and it is of fundamental importance to better understand the spectrum of possible futures for the ocean. Two of the Anthropocene risks that threaten the ocean are the rapidly increasing sargassum blooms and the large amount of litter entering the ocean each year, including an increasing amount of plastic.

MARI is engaged with the IEEE OES Ocean Plastics Initative and contributes to the GEO Blue Planet Working Group on Marine Litter. MARI also contributes to the sargassum working group of Blue Planet.

Building Conservation Leaders for the Future: Curriculum, Certificates, Internships, and Research Agenda

Project Period: July 2015 - December 2019.

Based on a Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) and MARI at ODU, an undergraduate Minor and a graduate Certificates in Conservation Leadership have been implemented. A research agenda in conservation under climate change and sea level rise has been co-designed by FWS staff and MARI. In carrying out the project, MARI drew on expertise in a number of colleges and departments at ODU.

This project is funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Sercives under a Cooperative Agreement. To learn more about the project, visit the project site or contact the P.I. Hans-Peter Plag (hpplag at

Implementing and Monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals in the Caribbean: The Role of the Ocean

Project Period: July 2017 to Decemeber 2018.

This NASA-funded project organized and documented a participatory workshop on “Implementing and Monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals in the Caribbean: The Role of the Ocean” in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. For more information, see the Workshop Web page ...

Hazard Assessment and Adaptation Toolkits

Project Period: October 2014 to September 2015.

This project aimed at collating work of Arup and external partners specifically related to flood risk from sea level rise, distilling best practices and identifing gaps, providing a single, market-focussed guidance on estimation of sea level rise and assessment of risk and adaptation options. The output included references to tools, models and guidance documents for use by Arup staff anywhere; targeted to the needs of cities (people/ infrastructure) facing sea level rise.

This ODU contibution to this project was funded by Arup, U.K.

A Tool to Measure Community Stress to Support Disaster Resilience Planning

Project Period: January 2016 to December 2017

The goal of this project was to create a Hazards Stress Test Tool, a web-based tool that allows planners and decisions makers to measure community stress and to assess the vulnerability of their communities to a variety of hazards and disaster scenarios. This project contributed to the Coastal Resilience Center (CRC) of Excellence funded by the Department of Home Land Security (DHS). To learn more about the project, visit the project site.

Reality Check

Project Period: January 2014 to December 2016

This project engaged in participatory activities with the goal to better understand the perception of reality on areas impacted by frequent flooding caused by sea level rise. For details see the project page ...

Adaptation Research in Virginia

Project Period: July 2015 to December 2015

The Mitigation and Adaptation Research Institute (MARI) of Old Dominion University is carrying out an assessment of adaptation knowledge as it relates to sea level rise. The focus is on the practice-relevant knowledge societal stakeholders need to ensure the livelihood of coastal communities under the potential changes in sea level.

This project was supported by the Virginia Space Grant Consortium. To learn more about the project, visit the project site ...