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Linking the Boundary Chain

With a changing climate threatening assets in the Great Lakes, local experts formed a boundary organization to bridge the gap between scientists and decision makers.

The gap in knowledge

As a changing climate increases the vulnerability of assets in the Great Lakes region, cooperation among community groups and municipal officials becomes essential to the process of identifying and responding to impending challenges. However, varying motivations and priorities among these groups can be obstacles to working together.

Despite rising concerns of climate impacts, formal plans and actions for adapting to a changing climate remain rare in the Great Lakes region. In 2015, only Marquette and Grand Rapids in Michigan and Dane County and Milwaukee in Wisconsin had developed formal climate adaptation plans. And as of 2018, none of the plans have been implemented. Furthermore, a study of people from Great Lakes cities found that fewer than ten percent of them could identify a public official whom they perceived was pushing for climate action.

The obvious gap between increasing needs for climate adaptation and leaders who are eager to address the issue was one factor keeping things from moving forward.

Boundary organizations provide social glue

Map showing the location of GLCAN member cities, as well as a list of members

In 2015, a group of local government staff and their partners recognized the need for a bridging organization that could connect communities with researchers and adaptation resources. The group applied for and received grant funding through the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN).

Today, they are a member-driven peer network known as the Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network (GLCAN), and they work together to explore and act on climate adaptation challenges in the Great Lakes region. Membership is limited to local government staff and partners in the Great Lakes region.

GLCAN also works with Great Lakes Integrated Sciences + Assessments (GLISA), a NOAA-supported program at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Both boundary organizations work together to find and deliver climate information to support member-cities in their decision making.

Flow chart of the linked boundary chain model, showing the movement of climate information through boundary organizations to information users

A configuration of the boundary chain employed by the Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network. The information is tailored and moves through different boundary organizations (links in the chain) to connect science to users. By co-creating information and pooling resources throughout the chain, trust and legitimacy are built and cost is decreased.

Putting boots on the ground for assessment

With funding from the USDN Innovation Fund, GLCAN helped the cities of Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Evanston, Indianapolis, and Cleveland assess their vulnerabilities to climate change impacts. With additional funding from GLISA, the group is collaborating with the Huron River Watershed Council to develop vulnerability assessments for city budgeting and planning across the region. The assessments can help cities identify and reduce vulnerabilities to anticipated climate impacts such as extreme heat and rainfall events.

Based in part on this work, the USDN has also funded a follow-up project for GLISA. Working with the non-partisan research group Headwaters Economics, GLISA will work with more Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic cities to develop a socioeconomic mapping tool for climate risk planning.

Tangible benefits of boundary organizations

Organizations such as GLCAN and GLISA can help build bridges for knowledge transfer between scientists and decision makers. Their functions can also traverse the boundaries between science and policy by spanning the range between the production of climate information and the use of that knowledge.

Results from the organizations’ community interactions show that the linking boundary chain such as that illustrated in the figure above can increase local scientific knowledge, encourage new cities to participate in climate adaptation activities, reduce costs by increasing efficiency, and help cities better prepare for changing conditions.


Browne, Katherine, Rebecca Esselman, Kumar Jensen, and Jeff Meek. "Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network: How Can an Adaptation Network Sustain Effective Partnerships for Climate Adaptation?" University of Michigan: Gala. Accessed July 29, 2019.

"Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network (GLCAN)" (PDF). Urban Sustainability Directors Network: Partner Networks. Accessed July 29, 2019.

"Great Lakes Integrated Sciences + Assessments." November 26, 2018, accessed July 29, 2019.

Huron River Watershed Council. "Assessing Urban Vulnerability." Accessed July 29, 2019.

Kalafatis, S.E. and M.C. Lemos. "The emergence of climate change policy entrepreneurs in urban regions.Regional Environmental Change 17, no. 6 (2017): 1791.

Lemos, M.C., C.J. Kirchhoff, S.E. Kalafatis, D. Scavia, and R.B. Rood. "Moving Climate Information off the Shelf: Boundary Chains and the Role of RISAs as Adaptive Organizations.Weather, Climate, and Society 6 (April 2014): 273–285.

Story Credit

Adapted with permission by Benjamin Chappelow, narrative writing intern with UNC Asheville's NEMAC, from "Case Study: Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network" in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, Chapter 21: Midwest, originally published November 23, 2018. See link at right, under Additional Resources.

Banner Image Credit

Skyline of Indianapolis, Michigan. Photo by Momoneymoproblemz, CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Last modified
24 October 2019 - 10:42am