Survey Says. . .Great Lakes Coastal Communities Choose Climate Adaptation!

Katherine Kahl
Katherine Kahl, Heather Stirratt
Posted on: 3/25/2013 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

Posted by

Rachel Gregg

Project Summary

Climate change adaptation can be broadly defined as the process of evaluating the changes in climate that are occurring and that are expected to occur, linking those climatic changes to impacts on the things we value, identifying ways to address those impacts, and ultimately updating and implementing strategies to reduce future risks. Across the Great Lakes region, agencies and organizations are engaged in a variety of efforts to inform the climate adaptation process for coastal community planners, conservation practitioners and decision makers, yet many in this target audience still lack exposure to and access to the information, tools and resources being developed to support climate-adapted decision-making.

To help address this challenge, a regional team developed a community needs driven climate outreach and engagement process for Great Lakes coastal communities between 2010 and 2012 (Nelson et al. 2011 and 2012). This case study describes responses from multiple surveys administered as part of the 2011 Planning for Climate Impacts workshop series, which sought to capture the climate adaptation challenges and motivations that Great Lakes coastal community decision makers are encountering as they seek information about climate threats and impacts on local interests. To build upon this foundation, we conducted follow-up telephone interviews with some participants from these workshops, which provide insight into how decision makers have been incorporating the climate adaptation information provided. Continued follow-up with workshop participants has provided the ability to identify new information or assistance needs as they move toward adapting their planning and management. This case study aims to uncover and advance understanding of the way in which coastal communities are moving forward on climate adaptation in the Great Lakes region by exploring the emerging cycle of knowledge building, skill development and behavior change toward climate-adapted decision-making.


Across the Great Lakes region, a wide range of scientific papers, reports and outreach efforts have been developed to increase understanding of climate change trends and projected future impacts, and to provide an introduction to tools and examples of adaptation planning practices (e.g., Nelson et al. 2011). However, many decision makers are not aware of the resources that are available, or may be unsure about how to connect these resources to their own work. The challenge, for both the practitioners using climate information, as well as for those who are developing the resources to aid practitioners in the adaptation process, is creating and maintaining cross-sector communication of climate adaptation resource needs, and then disseminating the right resources in the right format to effectively aid the adaptation process.

Three key questions are examined here to help focus future climate adaptation research and resource dissemination in the Great Lakes region:

  1. Can, and how can, a climate engagement and outreach process achieve educational goals and raise climate change awareness, thus enabling behavior change?
  2. What lessons can be learned from those who are adapting their planning, policy or on-the-ground management actions to include climate considerations?
  3. For those who have not yet started to include climate considerations into their work, why not?

We aim to answer these questions by exploring the effectiveness of a multi-year climate outreach and engagement process, specifically the Planning for Climate Impacts workshop series, and how it has contributed to climate adaptation action in the Great Lakes region.


A Regional Needs Assessment Informed the Engagement and Outreach Process

The work described here represents a collaboration between the NOAA Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Team, Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR), Lake Superior NERR and the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network, in collaboration with the Great Lakes & Saint Lawrence Cities Initiative, to meet the shared objective of increasing the capacity in Great Lakes communities to pro-actively respond to climate changes. The primary objective of the collaboration was to inform and develop effective climate change adaptation training workshops that would help participants become more familiar with key resources and tools, and gain experience considering how planning and management could be shifted to reduce risks. To ensure that workshop training met Great Lakes coastal community needs, these aforementioned organizations conducted a two-phase Great Lakes climate Needs Synthesis (Nelson et al. 2011, 2012).

Phase I took place between 2010-2011 and was a synthesis of existing literature (Nelson et al. 2011), which served to inform the development of the Climate Ready Great Lakes training modules (NOAA/Sea Grant 2011), as well as a pilot “Train-the-Trainer” workshop held in Michigan for Great Lakes State Sea Grant Extension Agents.

Phase II took place in 2011, and focused on understanding the needs of the audience for the Planning for Climate Impacts workshop series. The team, coordinated by Old Woman Creek NERR and co-led by Dawn Nelson and Heather Elmer, queried nearly 700 Great Lakes coastal community planners, stormwater managers, and natural resource managers through interviews, focus groups or an online survey. The goal of these queries was to assess their knowledge, skills, interest, attitudes and abilities regarding incorporating climate impacts into their work, and to evaluate how aware participants were of the information and tools that are available. Analysis of the literature review, interviews, focus groups and online survey responses were used to develop a ranked top-10 list of needs for Great Lakes coastal communities to be able to adapt to climate change (Nelson et al. 2012), and to shape the content of the workshop series:

  1. Climate Literacy. Increase climate change literacy through research that addresses decision-maker needs, comprehensive science education throughout all grade levels, and informal science education for the public.
  2. Regional Needs Coordination. Build relationships between organizations at the federal, state, and local levels for the sake of efficient knowledge exchange.
  3. Financial Resources and Guidance. Resource leverage for climate adaptation.
  4. Information Tools. Management, coordination, and adjustment of maps, models, and collected data to incorporate new information and to allow for regional forecasting, analysis, and assessment of climate change related events.
  5. Resilient Land Use Planning. Research and implementation of resilient land use and physical planning/design that incorporates local economic drivers, infrastructure management/monitoring, transportation, and land-sea interactions.
  6. Climate Change Data. States, municipalities, and managers need current, comprehensible, near-term, and regionally relevant climate change data to incorporate into decision-making (e.g. drafting ordinances, master plans, and evacuation plans).
  7. Social and Ecological Research and Community Resiliency. Engineering, design, and social research as it applies to data collection methods, modeling, forecast uncertainty, extreme event attribution, and community resiliency.
  8. Decision-maker Trainings. Trainings utilizing sector-specific and general strategies to implement clear and flexible ecosystem-based management programs.
  9. Understanding Climate Impacts. Assessing the impacts of climate change on natural resource demands and budgets, including differential impacts across sectors.
  10. Ecosystem Research and Monitoring. Biological and ecological research, assessment, and monitoring, as well as prioritization of ecosystem preservation, in order to mitigate environmental stressors and monitor ecosystem health.


A Workshop Series Addressed Regional Needs and Gained Additional Feedback

Heather Elmer at Old Woman Creek NERR (ODNR Division of Wildlife) and Patrick Robinson, then with the Lake Superior NERR (currently University of Wisconsin Extension), coordinated the 2011 Planning for Climate Impacts workshop series in three coastal communities: Cleveland, OH (August 10); Green Bay, WI (September 9); and Duluth, MN (September 22). The training was funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and was developed based on a successful pilot program in Washington state, created through the national NERR System’s Coastal Training Program.

Planning teams, consisting of more than two dozen partner organizations, were assembled and led by Elmer and Robinson in each workshop region. The regional planning teams determined the target audience, which included planners, storm water professionals, natural resource managers, public health professionals, emergency preparedness staff, and private industry representatives. The Nature Conservancy was a member of all three regional planning teams. The planning teams agreed on the following workshop goals:

  • Increase participant understanding of: climate science, local and regional climate projections and likely impacts, benefits of planning for changes in climate, and tools to assist with framing and overcoming barriers to adaptation planning.
  • Create opportunities for networking and dialogue related to potential climate change adaptation strategies and regional examples of climate-integrated planning and adaptation.
  • Gather participant input on additional training, data, and information needs related to climate change.

The workshops attracted large audiences, with 120 participants in Cleveland, 48 in Green Bay, and 78 in Duluth. Of the 246 participants, 160 completed a post-workshop survey (64% response rate). The post-workshop surveys show that participants tended to be affiliated with universities (19%), state government (18%), non-profit organizations (15%) or local government (13%). The remaining participants were affiliated with county government, private industry, federal government agencies, regional government agencies, and tribal governments. Overall, participant satisfaction was high, with majorities indicating that they were “satisfied” to “very satisfied” with content, format, length and level of detail.

A full summary of the workshop planning process, attendee demographics and feedback by geography is described in the Evaluation Summary (Elmer and Robinson 2012).


Surveys Measured Workshop Effectiveness and are Informing Future Direction

The regional teams conducted pre- and post- workshop surveys of the Green Bay and Duluth participants, and a post-workshop survey of the Cleveland participants. These surveys gauged overall satisfaction, understanding of local and regional climate change science, the climate change adaptation planning process, projected climate impacts, available tools and resources, and gathered demographic information.

Ten months after the workshops (June 2012), Elmer and Robinson deployed a follow up, web-based survey with participants that had agreed to be contacted in the future (n = 89 agreed, n = 28 took the survey). The goals of this survey were to explore if and how information was being used longer-term (was there follow-through on what participants said they would do immediately following the workshop?) and to learn which climate information and tools still needed better dissemination, where implementation bottlenecks were occurring and what additional help coastal community practitioners still needed.

In September 2012, The Nature Conservancy (Katherine Kahl) conducted phone interviews to gain deeper insight into challenges and motivations for adaptation actions. We interviewed four individuals who had reported taking some sort of climate adaptation action within the 10 months following the workshop, and five individuals that reported taking no adaptation action in their 10-month survey responses.


Survey Findings: A Cycle of Progress is Emerging

While the strongest evidence of climate adaptation “success” is likely to be on-the-ground implementation or policy change, including climate in the list of planning considerations is progress, and it should not be overlooked. This evidence of climate knowledge-gain could be thought of as the first step in a cycle of 1) gaining climate knowledge, 2) increasing adaptation skills and 3) transforming climate-adapted behaviors and decision-making frameworks (Figure 1). This process continues to repeat as new knowledge is gained.

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As with any new concept not everyone is an “early adopter.” Newly proposed practices never start with a groundswell of acceptance or joiners, and it would be naive to expect that everyone would readily use new (climate adaptation) information and immediately change their way of doing things, or behaviors. Rather, once the benefits and risks of change have been explained by a few, adoption of the new practice is often followed by others [see Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (1962) or Prochaska’s “stages of change” in Systems of psychotherapy: A transtheoretical analysis (1979)]. Long held assumptions that we are managing resources under a stable climate system, with a consistent range of variability, versus the data-supported reality that we are globally experiencing a directional change of warming at a faster rate than we have previously recorded (U.S. Global Change Research Program 2009), is a substantial shift to expect decision-makers to readily embrace. Further, expecting them to not only digest the science of a changing climate, but also then comprehensively connect how climate changes are impacting the natural system or infrastructure they manage, and finally then adopt the practice of climate-adapted decision making frameworks, is a tall order. It will take time for climate-adapted decision-making to be broadly implemented. Knowledge gain is the first step. Workshop survey and interview responses suggest that a cycle of progress is taking place and that an increasing shift toward climate-adapted planning and implementation is happening in the Great Lakes region.

The following three steps illustrate the advancement in climate adaptation taking place in the Great Lakes region. Explanation of the emerging cycle of adaptation is supported with excerpts from and summaries of the post-Planning for Climate Impacts workshop surveys and interviews follows.

Knowledge Gain: The workshops shared climate change trends and impacts information with workshop participants. By showing how climate impacts the things that people care about (e.g., risks to public health, ecosystems or infrastructure they manage), the workshops promoted awareness-building, and for those that were new to this topic, started the learning process. Post-workshop, 91% of respondents reported “some”, “a lot” or “a great deal” of knowledge gain from attending the workshop. Examples of survey respondent comments, when asked in what ways the workshop increased their knowledge of climate change and adaptation, follow:

  • “The research, analysis and presentation of adaptation topics, strategies and the processes to adapt to climate change presented at the workshop are all new information for me.”
  • “This workshop took my knowledge to the next level.”
  • “Provided access to tools and resources.”
  • “This training helped me understand new ways to approach climate change, especially in approaching others about it.”
  • “It made me realize the importance of coordinating with as many people as possible to achieve a goal related to climate change adaptation.”
  • “Adaptation examples that were presented got me thinking about how our group could incorporate similar adaptation strategies. It also increased my knowledge of potential new partners for climate change adaptation projects.”
  • “I didn’t realize that we can do so much NOW to prepare and adapt to climate change.”

Follow-up telephone interviews (September 2012) with those who reported taking some type of climate adaptation action within one year of the workshop supported the concept of “knowledge gain” as the awareness-building first step toward implementing climate-adapted action:

  • “My take home so far is a simple premise: Are you pondering it [climate change] in your job?”
  • “Just getting people to ask the question about including climate is hard because it’s a different way of doing things.”
  • “When you have these workshops, you would be surprised at the ripple effect you create.”
  • “My biggest thing is feeling like we need to get people the information in digestible chunks – let them see that they can have an impact. It doesn’t take much to feel overwhelmed.”
  • “When we relay the regulation, and they ask why, we can show them now. . . it’s so important if someone really challenges you on what scientific basis you have. I will cite climate information now.”

Skill Development: Follow up surveys indicated that the information and knowledge gained at the workshop was used and was often shared with colleagues. Individuals created conditions for adaptation action by using climate information or tools and taking measures to further understand or identify existing adaptation obstacles or risks by reaching out to co-workers and partners for context and information-sharing, thus increasing their breadth of skills in climate-adapted planning.

Post-workshop, 94% of workshop participants said that they planned to share information they learned at the workshop with others. Ten months after the workshop, 93% of survey respondents had shared information. Here are some examples of the kinds of information they shared:

  • “Helped shape planning direction of a work group…”
  • “I shared information and materials with the education community.”
  • “I shared the [climate] concerns of storm water managers with organizational watershed conservation staff with the hope of engendering potential urban-rural partnerships.”
  • “I am using the connections to help build out support letters for a grant application on climate change resilience and health adaptation.”

Coastal community survey respondents reported in the 2011 NOAA Climate Change Needs Synthesis that “leadership, tools and data” were broad regional needs; "awareness, communication, data sharing and data access” were cited as local needs (Nelson et al. 2012 and 2011, Desotelle 2006: 22-23). The increase in information sharing reported in the post-workshop and 10-months-later surveys are an indication of participants taking an action that can help build new community awareness and create conditions for moving through the adaptation cycle toward behavior change. This could be evidence of a developing responsiveness, generating the cultural shift necessary to implement climate-adapted plans and policy changes.

Telephone interviewees (September 2012) noted that it was “an interesting exercise to sit with a group of people from different disciplines and talk about vulnerability assessments.” One person noted meeting someone at the workshop and that together, using the workshop attendee list, they have started calling meetings to “talk about who’s doing what in the region.” Another individual noted that when helping a local watershed association model peak discharge, he was able to share climate information and add climate context to the modeling process that would otherwise not have been considered. One person reported being invited to give a storm water presentation to high school students following the workshop and he included climate information from the workshop. He noted feeling empowered to be more persuasive and speaking more definitely on the subject than he had in the past. He encouraged the students to share what he told them with others. He later found out that several of the students had formed a new club to share information about climate impacts on water quality issues.

Adaptation Action and Behavior Change: The follow-up surveys and interviews suggest that some workshop participants are prepared to change, or have already changed, a planning process or on-the-ground management practice so that it incorporates and reflects climate considerations. This is evidence of progress toward climate-adapted decision-making. Workshop participants were asked if they learned something new that they will apply in their work or future decisions. Post-workshop, 72% of participants said “yes” and 23% “maybe” (95% positive response). Ten months later, 86% say that they are using the information learned at the workshop in current work and decision-making. Here are some examples of the diverse ways in which respondents described how the information is being used:

  • “When we discuss sustainable zoning regulations with applicants, it is because of seminars like yours that we can speak with more clarity and confidence”
  • “We use workshop information as background for decision-making on regional climate adaptation grants awarded.”
  • “Incorporated information into the Lake Superior Climate Change Adaptation Plan”
  • “Countywide multi-hazard mitigation planning effort with partner organizations and residents”
  • “Used the material in presentations to local watershed groups”
  • “Developing grant project ideas with local partners”
  • “…influenced our focus on water impacts from climate change.”
  • “…adapting healthcare for climate change impacts on respiratory disease rates.”
  • “…organizing additional education and workshop agendas.”
  • “Dissertation proposal development. . .future [academic] research direction”
  • “Made climate a part of our sustainability focus.”

Telephone interviews (September 2012) provided more in-depth understanding of how specifically climate-adapted action was being taken post-workshop. Discussions identified the following examples of climate adaptation action:

  • The state had to choose which of three regional state-operated tree nurseries, each propagating native regional stock, to eliminate this year: a northern, central or southern nursery. They chose to keep the southern and central nurseries so that they could continue propagating those regional native species most likely to do well under warming temperatures. Plant species are exhibiting a generally northward range shift in response to warming temperatures and the northern nursery stock may not be the best investment to propagate the state’s forests and ensure viable forests of the future.
  • A regulatory agency employee who issues permits for drilling drinking water wells stated that he now looks for climate considerations in the permit request and in addition to talking about cost considerations with landowners. He also explains the changes in the water table projected over time to the permit applicants, and when working with farmers, discusses the increasing frequency of intense storm events and therefore higher probability of heavy flooding and greater likelihood of runoff and manure overtopping holding areas. He noted that this consideration of the well contamination risk (and potential fines for the farmer) can often help determine the way the well is drilled.
  • One respondent identified that a new narrative addendum has been added to public land timber sale plans in one state. This addendum asks the planner whether they, in addition to other considerations, have considered climate change in the timber sale design. This is one way to encourage, though it doesn’t require, climate considerations in the timber plan.

Outcomes and Conclusions

Three questions were examined to help focus regional climate adaptation research and inform a resource dissemination process in the Great Lakes region:

1. Can, and how can, a climate engagement and outreach process achieve educational goals and raise climate change awareness, thus enabling behavior change?

The Planning for Climate Impacts workshop series, informed by both the Needs Synthesis (Nelson et al. 2011) and regional workshop planning teams, was a critical part of a successful climate engagement and outreach process. Overall there was tremendous knowledge gain reported by participants in these workshops. Based on the follow-up surveys and interviews, the workshops contributed to educational advancements (knowledge gain), an increase in climate change awareness and information-sharing (skill development), and to behavior changes resulting in examples of climate-adapted planning and on-the-ground management action.

2. What lessons can be learned from those who are adapting their planning, policy, or on-the-ground management actions to include climate considerations?

Several key lessons emerged from those who have already adapted, or are in the process of adapting, their planning or management. Those who were successful at incorporating climate factors into a process embraced the fact that climate is one consideration, among many, that communities need to weigh as they plan for the future. Not including the possible range of future climate scenarios (and subsequent impacts on nature and people) in planning does not make good societal or business sense when we weigh the full spectrum of risks and benefits in a decision-making process. Feedback from participants suggests that finding a way to glean local meaning and application from adaptation examples in other regional geographies is essential, as it is difficult to find complete examples of the full climate adaptation process. Therefore, documenting “early adopter” adaptation process examples for others to learn from will help share knowledge, increase skill development and subsequently additional climate-adapted actions, thus catalyzing the adaptation cycle.

3. For those who have not yet included climate considerations into their work, why not?

Those who have not yet included climate considerations into their work often cited that the barrier was not lack of information, but rather lack of support by the public or elected officials to include climate as a valid factor in decision-making. Similarly, some noted that it was difficult to introduce climate information to those who weren’t necessarily looking to consider it. Others noted quite the opposite. They felt that they still lacked enough specific information that applied to their issue or that more comprehensive, conclusive, specific and local climate change or climate projection data was needed to support climate-adapted management on-the-ground for a resource in a specific region. Still others noted that competing pressures did not allow them enough time to keep up with who’s doing what and that although they knew that within-sector and across-sector connections needed to be made where climate was concerned, they did not have time to do it and were not sure, in many cases, where to start making these connections.

Climate change knowledge is increasing and as a result, adaptation is taking place in the Great Lakes region, as supported by survey responses and as summarized in the adaptation cycle explained in this case study. As previously stated, the challenge now, for both the practitioners using climate information and for those developing resources to aid practitioners in the adaptation process, is creating and maintaining cross-sector communication of climate adaptation resource needs, and then disseminating the right resources, in the right format, to effectively aid the adaptation process. Given that climate adaptation is taking place but with the aforementioned challenge at hand, the following recommendations should be considered to help focus our efforts to catalyze adaptation moving forward:

  • Continue to share climate information. More climate information sharing needs to take place to 1) expand the number of people being exposed to climate information and 2) re-ignite knowledge gain among those who have been exposed to basic concepts, regional trends, and information resources but still don’t understand enough or possess the confidence or know-how to move to the next step of Skill Development (e.g., risk assessment) where they would engage colleagues and partners to consider how climate could be incorporated into their efforts.
  • Improve communication across sectors. Ideas for expanding knowledge gain include more strategic and coordinated marketing and communications campaigns among regional partners. This is already taking place in some instances, but “preaching beyond the choir” will be essential to begin to effectively engage multi-sector interests in shared climate-impacted challenges. On multiple occasions, telephone interview participants specifically noted the lack of and need for communication between natural resource managers, engineers and planners. An example where cross-sector communication could assist these entities is in addressing water resource challenges that deal with road-stream crossings, fish passage/connectivity, water quality, flooding, and coordination on the economics and timing of plan development and implementation. This kind of coordination, that helps nature adapt and also helps people, is a key connection to make to explain the value of adaptation across multi-sector interest groups.
  • Encourage progress through the adaptation cycle. For individuals or organizations to move through the adaptation cycle, novel opportunities to gain and share knowledge and be exposed to problem-solving, case study examples and the many questions and considerations an entity faces while moving through the steps of the climate-adaptation process must be shared. Gaining comfort with climate science and adaptation tools leads to the ultimate leap forward toward implementing climate-adapted actions. One recommendation to encourage individuals to advance to the next step in the adaptation cycle, is to leverage an existing climate communication “champion” to host an “Ask an Adapter” panel. Ohio State University’s ChangingClimate webinar series may be well-suited, as it is an established climate communication hub, regionally valued, and thus marketable. Practitioners, planners and decision-makers could submit questions monthly to a panel of climate adaptation experts and then call in to hear researched panel responses and subsequent discussion about specific questions that likely apply to multiple interests around the region. This type of effort may meet the needs of respondents who appreciated the workshop series follow-up and requested brownbag sessions as refresher courses to keep them connected and current. Marketing this series beyond traditional climate partners ensures that information is communicated to a variety of sectors, influencers, decision-makers and potential future supporters.

In conclusion, the process of community engagement and outreach undertaken by NOAA and key partners is promoting advancements in regional climate adaptation, pin-pointing future investment priorities for climate outreach needs and identifying decision-making bottlenecks. Though this data represents a subset of decision-makers, planners and practitioners in the Great Lakes region, the community needs driven climate outreach and engagement process described here may be a model of raising climate awareness that other communities could consider in their own geographies. Readers are encouraged to review the cited resources and contact authors for additional information.


Key Sources of Information


Kahl, K. and Stirratt, H. (2012). Survey Says...Great Lakes Coastal Communities Choose Climate Adaptation! [Case study on a project of The Nature Conservancy - Great Lakes and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. Ed. Rachel M. Gregg. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated November 2012)

Project Contacts

Position: Climate Change Ecologist

Affiliated Organizations

The Great Lakes Project is focused on the protection, restoration and maintenance of the region’s most critical natural systems while safeguarding the lakes from their most significant threats, such as aquatic invasive species.

The Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes Project has identified six priority areas to build strategic success:

NOAA is an agency that enriches life through science. Our reach goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor as we work to keep citizens informed of the changing environment around them. From daily weather forecasts, severe storm warnings and climate monitoring to fisheries management, coastal restoration and supporting marine commerce, NOAA’s products and services support economic vitality and affect more than one-third of America’s gross domestic product.