Mental models of sea-level change: A mixed methods analysis on the Severn Estuary, UK

Merryn Thomas, Nick Pidgeon, Lorraine Whitmarsh, Rhoda Ballinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (SciVal)


Global average sea levels are expected to rise by up to a metre by the end of the century. This long-term rise will combine with shorter-term changes in sea level (e.g. high tides, storm surges) to increase risks of flooding and erosion in vulnerable coastal areas. As communities become increasingly exposed to these risks, understanding their beliefs and responses becomes more important. While studies have explored public responses to climate change, less research has focused on perceptions of the specific risks associated with sea-level change. This paper presents the results of a mental models study that addressed this knowledge gap by exploring expert and public perceptions of sea-level change on the Severn Estuary, a threatened coastal environment in the southwest of the United Kingdom. A model was developed from the literature and expert interviews (. N=. 11), and compared with public perceptions elicited via interviews (. N=. 20) and a quantitative survey (. N=. 359). Whilst we find a high degree of consistency between expert and public understandings, there are important differences that have implications for how sea level risks are interpreted and for what are perceived as appropriate mitigation and adaptation practices. We also find a number of potential barriers to engaging with the issue: individuals express low concern about sea-level change in relation to other matters; they feel detached from the issue, seeing it as something that will happen in future to other people; and many perceive that neither the causes of nor responses to sea-level change are their responsibility. We point to areas upon which future risk communications should therefore concentrate.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-82
Number of pages12
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2015


  • Mental models
  • Public perceptions
  • Public understanding
  • Sea-level change
  • Sea-level rise

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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