A watershed-based method for environmental vulnerability assessment with a case
study of the Mid-Atlantic region
Liem T. Tran
, Robert V. O'Neill
, Elizabeth R. Smith
Department of Geography, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, USA
OTIE & Associates, Oak Ridge, TN, USA
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ofﬁce of Research and Development, National Exposure Research Laboratory, Research Triangle Park, NC, USA
Received 22 September 2011
Received in revised form 24 October 2011
Accepted 25 November 2011
Available online 31 January 2012
The paper presents a method for environmental vulnerability assessment with a case study of the Mid-
Atlantic region. The method is based on the concept of “self-/peer-appraisal” of a watershed in term of
vulnerability. The self-/peer-appraisal process is facilitated by two separate linear optimization programs.
The analysis provided insights on the environmental conditions, in general, and the relative vulnerability
pattern, in particular, of the Mid-Atlantic region. The suggested method offers a simple but effective and
objective way to perform a regional environmental vulnerability assessment. Consequently the method can
be used in various steps in environmental assessment and planning.
© 2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The concept of vulnerability has been studied and applied in a wide
range of disciplines in recent years, such as in economic and social
welfare studies (Adger, 1999; Murdoch, 1994; Watts and Bohle,
1993), natural hazards (Cutter, 1996; Wei et al., 2004), agricultural
vulnerability (Berry et al., 2006; Rounsevell et al., 2006), ecological/
environmental vulnerability (Gunderson, 2000; Metzger et al., 2006;
Rey Benayas and de la Montaña, 2003), global climate change
(Downing et al., 2001; Metzger et al., 2005; Moss et al., 2002; Ribot,
1996), and sustainability science (Clark et al., 2000; Kasperson et al.,
2009; Kates et al., 2001). Generally, vulnerability can be deﬁned as the
degree to which human and environmental systems are likely to expe-
rience harm due to a perturbation or stress (Turner et al., 2003). How-
ever, different disciplines often use different meanings and concepts of
vulnerability, which have led to diverse methods of measuring it
(Alwang et al., 2001). In general, recent studies on vulnerability often
divert from traditional vulnerability assessment which centers on single
stressor to single resource or receptor, moving to focusing on many
aspects of the system being stressed, such as the synergistic effect of
multiple stressors on multiple resources, the mechanisms that enhance
or limit a system's ability to cope, adapt or recover from multiple
stressors (Clark and Dickson, 2003). Furthermore, the current vulnerabil-
ity research has been more multidisciplinary, being rooted in both
natural and social sciences, as well as more policy-driven (IHDP, 2001).
It provides crucial information for decision makers to allocate limited
resources in order to implement vulnerability-reducing intervention
alternatives (IPCC, 2001).However,theapplicationoftheconceptinto
policy making is still limited for a wide array of reasons. Some of them
include the complexity of the system under study, the deﬁciency in
knowledge regarding the system, the lack of consensus on the meaning
of vulnerability, and by the missing of measures to account for/represent
vulnerability within and across systems (Kværner et al., 2006; Luers
et al., 2003).
Vulnerability at regional scale, from out viewpoint (Smith et al.,
2000), includes many aspects. It is rarity, synergy, sensitivity, and
spatial context. In that context, no single question or approach will
sufﬁce. Regional vulnerability analysis needs to draw on many
sources of data, to explore many different assessment methods, and
to enable decision-makers to ask many different questions. In this
paper, we present an objective method to analyze the pattern of
vulnerability at regional scale based on the analysis of a set of
environmental variables. The method is based on the concept of “self-/
peer-appraisal” of a watershed in terms of vulnerability. The self-/peer-
appraisal process is facilitated by two separate linear optimization
programs. We illustrate the applicability of the approach with an
environmental vulnerability assessment of the Mid-Atlantic region.
2. Data and method
2.1. Study area
Encompassing portions of eight states, the Mid-Atlantic region is
in the Northeast of the United States (Fig. 1a). Forest dominates the
Environmental Impact Assessment Review 34 (2012) 58–64
Although this work was reviewed by EPA and approved for publication, it may not
necessarily reﬂect ofﬁcial agency policy.
⁎ Corresponding author at: Department of Geography, 1000 Phillip Fulmer Way,
Knoxville, TN 37996-0925, USA. Tel.: +1 865 974 6034; fax: +1 865 974 6025.
E-mail address: email@example.com (L.T. Tran).
0195-9255/$ – see front matter © 2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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