Developing Solutions to Restore the Coast

Jan. 12, 2021
Richard Ambrose standing next to a pond in the middle of a field

This profile is a part of our consortium profile series, highlighting the people that make up the SW CASC—what inspires them, makes them passionate about their research, and gives them hope for the future. For this profile, Bryson Mineart (SW CASC communications student assistant and undergraduate student in the University of Arizona Physics program) interviewed SW CASC co-investigator Richard Ambrose, Research Professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA has been a primary partner of the SW CASC for 10 years).

Rich Ambrose has been a long-time advocate for saving our environment and the world surrounding us. Growing up in southern California, Rich often found himself adventuring outside, exploring the hills surrounding his childhood home before the region became heavily developed. Because of his passion for the environment, Rich knew he wanted to study the natural world, but it was not until attending UC Irvine that he discovered there was a discipline, ecology, that encompassed all the things he was most interested in. Rich has concentrated his career primarily on studying the impacts of human interaction with the coastal environment and ways to manage those impacts, including ecosystem restoration. Over the past decade, much of Rich’s research has focused on climate change and coastal habitats.

As he finished his education, Rich had a large decision to make as to what career path he would take to provide the largest benefit to the environment. He considered working for a resource management agency, but ultimately decided he could have the most impact as a researcher at the science-management interface and ended up becoming a professor at UCLA. Rich served as Director of the Environmental Science and Engineering Program (a doctoral program providing multidisciplinary training needed to solve complex environmental problems) for 13 years, was a founding member of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, and taught classes in applied ecology and environmental health. Rich stated, “I have a really high commitment to training the next generation of students.” Over his career, he has trained nearly 100 students! He has been proud to see many of his past students participating in leadership positions in public and private organizations. Even after officially retiring in 2019, Rich still travels often, conducts research, and manages to find time to advise 10 doctoral students. In his retirement, it is safe to say that Rich is most certainly not underworked.

A beach in the early morning being soaked by small waves.

Rich has a love for learning a diversity of topics. As a result, his career and impacts on environmental sciences have been nothing short of inspiring and diversifying for many in the field. During his career, Rich was involved and interacted with every level of government, has served on many advisory committees, and worked in the field as a researcher. Rich’s longest relationship with agency scientists and managers is with the California Coastal Commission, where since 1985 he has advised the Commission on ways to mitigate the adverse effects of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on the marine environment. At the federal level, Rich has worked with the National Park Service, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. At the California state level, besides the Coastal Commission, Rich has worked with the Ocean Protection Council, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Coastal Conservancy. On a more local level, he has worked with many resource managers including the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission and local non-profit environmental organizations. Deep engagement with these resource management organizations has been crucial for knowing which topics of study are needed by managers, influencing management policies, and obtaining funding.

What gives Rich hope for the future when thinking about climate change? He recognizes that this can be challenging and has actually been told that his applied ecology class was the most depressing class students had ever taken! But Rich does hold hope for the future of climate change through trying to find solutions – having his research focused on developing those solutions and then helping managers to implement them. For example, an area of research he would like to focus more on is armoring of the coast, especially in California. Currently, to protect homes and infrastructure from the ocean, people have been constructing seawalls, but there is evidence that this has many negative effects on coastal ecosystems. Rich wants to promote better ways to protect coastal infrastructure, such as constructing living seawalls or intertidal artificial reefs to reduce wave impacts and provide suitable ecological habitat. As sea levels rise around the world, our ability as a species to adapt, mitigate, and take steps forward begin with coastal cities and coastal ecosystems. Rich has dedicated his career to using science to inform management in efforts that benefit both coastal ecosystems and coastal cities.