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Hard-adaptive measures can increase vulnerability to storm surge and tsunami hazards over time


Whether hard-adaptive measures (for example, seawalls) actually reduce vulnerability to natural hazards is the subject of considerable debate. Existing quantitative risk assessments often ignore behavioural feedbacks that some claim lead to increased development in hazardous zones. Here, we couple a tsunami model with a land-use change model and find that hard-adaptive measures can induce a false sense of security and inadvertently lead to increased vulnerability (that is, are maladaptive). We also observe that heightened hazard awareness (a type of soft-adaptation) can reduce vulnerability. Our results have two major implications: (1) they challenge existing hazard adaptation practice by quantitatively demonstrating the potential for hard-adaptive measures to be maladaptive, and (2) they highlight that ignoring the behavioural feedbacks in hazard assessment can alter the conclusions to the extent that they fail to identify maladaptive actions. In addition to the demonstrated case of tsunamis, the result may be relevant to other, repeatable natural hazards where urban growth influences exposure (for example, storm surge). Ultimately, neglecting future urban development and the temporal evolution of risk can result in incorrect conclusions regarding adaptation strategies; including these processes is therefore an essential consideration for the natural hazard and climate change impact communities.

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We thank A. Judge, who assisted T.M.L. to optimize the simulation code, and T.M.L.’s colleagues in the Michigan University-Wide Sustainability and Environment (MUSE) Initiative for their feedback on the manuscript. We also thank A. Suppasri, who helped us find data on the historical tsunami sources. Funding was provided by the University of Michigan, US National Science Foundation (grant numbers CMMI-1621116 and SEES-1631409), the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (NSF cooperative programme for interdisciplinary joint research projects in Hazards and Disasters, project titled ‘Evolution of Urban Regions in Response to Recurring Disasters’) and TU Delft’s Delta Infrastructure and Mobility Initiative (DIMI). This support is gratefully acknowledged. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the sponsoring agencies.

Author information

T.M.L. designed and performed the research. S.D.G. guided the research process. J.D.B. advised and assisted with the tsunami model.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to T. M. Logan.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1–19, Supplementary Tables 1–5, Supplementary References 1–65

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Fig. 1: The result of seawalls on mean (average) damage and development patterns.
Fig. 2: The density functions (distributions) for a number of damaged land cells given a tsunami during the final 100 years of the simulation.
Fig. 3: Increasing the time that the community remains aware of the hazard.