Rob Thieler, Ph.D.

I work on a variety of topics including coastal change hazards, sea-level rise impacts, continental shelf sedimentation, and applications of web and smartphone technology to coastal problems.



Dr. Rob Thieler is the Center Director of the U.S. Geological Survey's Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Rob received his B.A. in political science from Dickinson College, and his M.S. degree in environmental science and Ph.D. in geology from Duke University. Rob conducts marine geologic research on the geologic framework and evolution of the coastal zone. This includes understanding relationships between geology, sediment transport, climate and sea-level change, and coastal erosion. Rob has conducted assessments of sea-level rise vulnerability for the U.S. and locations worldwide. He served as a Lead Author of a U.S. Global Change Research Program report on potential impacts of sea-level rise, and works with many federal and state agencies to develop science and policy plans for addressing coastal change hazards. Rob also studies habitat use and availability for beach-nesting and migratory shorebirds. Rob developed the widely-used DSAS software package for measuring coastal erosion and accretion and has recently developed smartphone applications for coastal science.


B.A., 1987, Political Science, Certificate in Environmental Studies, Dickinson College

M.S., 1993, Environmental Science, Duke University

Ph.D., 1997, Geology, Duke University


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Research Interests

Coastal Change Assessment

I have a longstanding interest in coastal change assessment, particularly historical shoreline change. This includes developing new data, knowledge and tools (particularly the Digital Shoreline Analysis System, DSAS) that are widely used by the scientific community to document and interpret patterns of shoreline movement in response to changes in forcing, geologic constraints, and anthropogenic manipulation, as well as the coastal management community (many states use historical erosion rates as a basis for building setback laws or other policy). Major research questions include what statistical techniques adequately address the problems of nonlinear and non-uniform shoreline movement, trend reversals, and short-term variability that increase the magnitude of error in quantitative analyses. There are also important questions regarding the spatial variability of shoreline movement at different temporal scales. All of these issues are important when developing coastal hazard forecasts and informing coastal management decisions. Much of this information is derived and applied at a nationwide scale through our National Assessment of Coastal Change Hazards project, and delivered through our Coastal Change Hazards web portal.

Sea-level Rise Hazards

My colleagues and I conduct research to assess the potential impacts of sea-level rise on coastal evolution and provide tools for coastal management decision making. Historical and recent observations of coastal environments and rates of change are combined with model simulations of coastal environments such as barrier islands and coastal aquifers. A Bayesian network approach is used to integrate the information, evaluate the probability of sea-level rise impacts, and communicate these to managers who allocate resources to avoid, mitigate, or adapt to future hazards. Our objective is to integrate understanding and predictions across topics ranging from erosion, groundwater, and ecology to management actions. This work includes investigating landscape-scale responses to sea-level rise, and the evolution and utilization of shorebird habitat. The latter project uses a novel, new open-source smartphone app that we developed to collect the required data rapidly across much of the U.S. Atlantic coast. We use the Bayesian network modeling approach to test hypotheses that it can capture fundamental interactions within and between the related systems that are considered by this project, make skillful predictions, and reduce the complexity of modeled processes to evaluation of outcome probabilities that support management decisions.

Continental Shelf Geologic Processes

Part of my research involves continental shelf processes such as modern sedimentation, and placing the geologic record preserved in shelf sediments in a paleoclimatic context. Some of this work interpreted seafloor features in the context of prevailing oceanographic and engineering understanding and led to development of a new explanatory model for sedimentary features on the shelf. Although it has long been recognized that the continental shelf contains an archive of critical Late Quaternary events that influence both the climate system and coastal evolution, accessing this archive has been difficult due to limitations of technology (size and resolution of equipment; data volume and processing) and the harsh physical environment. The USGS has unique capabilities to conduct research on the shelf that have helped increase our understanding of climate and coastal change. For example, we have used geologic and geophysical data to describe the role of meltwater discharge down the Hudson River in producing climate oscillations during the last deglaciation. This includes a novel interpretation of seafloor morphology and stratigraphy that places constraints on the volume and timing of meltwater release. Shelf stratigraphy and sedimentation can also be used to explain the evolution of the Carolina Capes and the North Carolina coast more generally. The latter paper applies principles from both modern sedimentation and Quaternary stratigraphy to arrive at a synthesis that demonstrates the interconnected nature of geologic setting and processes that produces the geomorphic attributes of the coastal system as it exists today.

In the news…

2016 New York Times Strategic Retreat on Cape Cod

2015 Cape Cod Times Cape Wearing Away

2015 Cape Cod Times Sea-level Rise on Cape Cod Op-Ed 

2015 Fedscoop iPlover mobile app

2014 Environmental Protection Science Brings Clarity to Shifting Shores

2013 The New Yorker "The Beach Builders"

2013 Nature News (about a new paper in that week's Nature Climate Change)

2012 Shored Up (bit part in a feature-length documentary film)

2012 What's Next After Hurricane Sandy? Op-Ed