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Updating a Climate Vulnerability Assessment

Santa Cruz, California

Featured image for the project, Updating a Climate Vulnerability Assessment

Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz, California


The Team

  • Dr. Tiffany Wise-West, PE | e: | t: 831.420.5433
  • Dr. Juliano Calil | e: [email protected]
  • Dr. Benjamin Preston | e:  [email protected] | t: 310.393.0411 x7481

The Initial Challenge

How can the City incorporate environmental justice into our Climate Adaptation Plan Update to ensure social equity in engagement, planning and action?

The Methods

Because we were also conducting GIS based coastal climate change vulnerability assessment producing maps of sea level rise impact and wildfire hazard zones, we used a GIS based approach to produce mapping of social vulnerability by census block group. The social vulnerability score is compiled based on the incidence of poverty, disability, elderly, crime and English not spoken as a first language. When overlain onto the sea level rise impacts and wildfire hazard zones, we are better able to tailor our efforts to engage, plan and take action to increase the City’s resiliency to climate change.

Dr. Juliano Calil possessed the expertise and experience in conducting social vulnerability assessments and Dr. Ben Preston provided expert review and feedback during the Climate Adaptation Plan Update process.

Other inputs that were necessary for the social vulnerability assessment to be completed included the GIS output files for the sea level rise impacts hazard zones and map templates from the coastal climate change vulnerability assessment modeling consultant, Central Coast Wetlands Group, another key partner on the project. The City’s GIS coordinator also provided city base maps, wildfire hazard zone boundaries and input on during the assessment process.

Between April and August, 2017 Drs. Calil and Wise-West, along with members of the City’s Climate Adaptation Plan Update leadership team, as needed, met at least twice a month for about an hour.  

During that time, Drs. Calil, Preston and Wise-West held short half hour conference calls about monthly and communicated regularly via email especially during key review milestones.

The Results

  • Draft 2017 Climate Adaptation Plan Update including
    • Coastal Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment mapping over 2030, 2060, and 2100 time horizons
    • Social Vulnerability to Climate Change mapping
    • Prioritized set of infrastructure and policy adaptation strategies
  • 8 Climate Adaptation Plan Update Progress presentations to commissions, conferences, students and community groups
  • Climate Adaptation Community Outreach Campaign Plan (Fall 2017-Summer 2018) including
    • Messaging
    • Community forums
    • Community coastal restoration work days
    • Integration with existing city school curriculum
    • Adaptation awareness walks
  • We plan to draft a journal article on the project collaboration likely for an AGU journal.

City residents, employees and leaders are now and will become more aware of the impacts of climate change on our most vulnerable populations. The intended major outcome associated with our upcoming outreach campaign is to educate and engage vulnerable populations on Santa Cruz’s climate change impacts and community-based adaptation solutions.

 We anticipate that the compelling argument of ensuring environmental justice for the most vulnerable populations in the City will accelerate policy decision-making and resource allocation that will improve our City’s resiliency to climate change impacts.

The methodology utilized for both the Coastal Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and the Social Vulnerability to Climate Change Analysis are contained in the Draft 2017 Climate Adaptation Plan Update and are replicable by other jurisdictions.

Photo Courtesy of the City of Santa Cruz

We have learned that ensuring transparency in assumptions and data sources and being clear about exclusions, weaknesses, and next step plans provides community members with a greater understanding of and degree of confidence in the findings. It is important to anticipate questions as well. For example, our sea level rise impact modeling scenarios conducted by another consultant predated the release of an H++ extreme scenario in the 2100 time horizon so it was excluded from analysis. Community members were interested in how the H++ scenario would impact our findings.  While the City does not have the resources to continually evaluate new science, we can frame the H++ scenario’s impacts as one in which the City will experience currently projected 2100 impacts, namely increased coastal flooding and erosion, much earlier.


  • A committed Team and set of Technical advisors who were technically adept and adhered to a fast moving timeline. Thanks AGU’s TEX for connecting us to our two primary advisors!
  • Support from City Council and City staff leadership to expand the scope of the update to include social vulnerability and a robust community outreach campaign.
  • Availability of regional geospatial sea level rise modeling, climate hazard zone maps, coastal armoring, census and city specific data for social vulnerability drivers.

There are a few things the team would do differently, if they were to do this project again:

  • Engage in more early stage planning and resource allocation: this project was unbudgeted and unfunded when the project manager, Dr. Wise-West, took her position, making it difficult to access technical consulting. More early stage planning to access funding and engage community members would have improved the project.
  • Establish relationships earlier with regulatory and funding agencies. We’ve come to realize that alliances with regional climate adaptation experts (in our case primarily sea level rise) and the agencies that fund and regulate their work can lead to more technical assistance and funding than just the standard grant making process.

For those interested in doing a community science project like this one, the Santa Cruz team recommends recognizing that multidisciplinary team members such as the 2017 Climate Adaptation Plan Update Team have different levels of knowledge on climate change and its impacts as well as different levels of commitment to the project. Open dialogue, communication of technical, regulatory, and financial constraints and directives, and a vision toward developing a well-balanced infrastructure and policy approach are all attributes the team should possess. The team conducted a visioning session prior to the start of the Climate Adaptation Plan Update process to gain buy-in and provide an overarching guide to our work.

See the City of Santa Cruz Climate Adaptation Plan Update 2017-2022.



The community of Santa Cruz, California is a beach town centered within the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary on the central coast of California. The community lies along 8 miles of coast and has a central river system subject to flooding. The community relies entirely on this local water supply and its reliability have been long term issues. Coastal sea level rise, flooding and cliff erosion are likely to be exacerbated by climate change as are non-coastal impacts such as drought and wildfires. A qualitative climate vulnerability assessment was completed in 2011 by University of California Santa Cruz researchers Drs. Gary Griggs and Brent Haddad. The City will be updating this vulnerability assessment in 2017 as part of its Local Hazard Mitigation Plan and Climate Adaptation Plan updates.


The City of Santa Cruz requires assistance from the scientific community to update the vulnerability assessment to be quantitative using recent data compiled via The Nature Conservancy’s Coastal Resilience Mapping Tool (and/or other recently available datasets), assessing completeness and assumptions, and addressing the non-coastal impacts. The vulnerability assessment will be a key tool used to plan long term policy changes, infrastructure investments and budgeting.


The scientist(s) would work primarily with Dr. Tiffany Wise-West, Sustainability and Climate Action coordinator.  In 2017, Dr. Wise-West will be leading an internal Climate Adaptation Advisory Team to update the City’s vulnerability assessment and Climate Adaptation Plan.


Dr. Wise-West will commit to do the following:

  1. Coordinate the framework and scope under which work will proceed with scientific partners.
  2. Collect and compile existing reports and data.
  3. Participate in progress meetings, document progress and adhere to timelines (project management)

Project Team

Community Lead

Tiffany Wise-West is Sustainability & Climate Action Coordinator for the City of Santa Cruz. Tiffany is a licensed professional civil engineer and LEED Associate Professional with 20 years of experience in municipal infrastructure planning, design and project management. Tiffany specializes in negotiating and managing public-private-academic partnerships aimed at advancing green infrastructure, policy and programming. She leads the City’s award-winning Climate Action Program and Santa Cruz GreenWharf initiative. Tiffany also advises the County Board of Supervisors on environmental matters as the District 2 Commissioner on the Santa Cruz County Commission on the Environment.


Scientific Partners

Juliano Calil is a PhD candidate in the Physical and Biological Sciences Division of the Ocean Sciences Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is a graduate student instructor for a course on “Multidisciplinary Approaches to Coastal Climate Adaptation”. 

Ben Preston is Director, Infrastructure Resilience and Environmental Policy Program at RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, CA. He’s been working in the arena of environmental assessment and management for over a decade, in both academic and non-profit settings. Since 2000, his professional work has focused on the issue of climate change, particularly helping stakeholders understand the implications of climate change and appropriate approaches to managing risk.