Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in Marine Affairs


Marine Affairs

First Advisor

Robert Thompson


Property owners and town officials in South Kingstown, Rhode Island are seeking means to protect private property and a local road from coastal erosion. Matunuck Beach Road is the only means of egress for nearly five-hundred homes in the village of Matunuck, and there is a public water main running underneath. There are millions of dollars worth of private structures that are also in danger from erosion. The political factors at play in this case are the desire to preserve private investments, the interest in keeping thriving businesses open, the protection of infrastructure, and the maintenance of community character. In addition to these anthropocentric factors, there are the coastal management challenges of maintaining a healthy and dynamic shoreline, preventing damage to neighboring coastal properties, and appropriately preparing for a future with a different climate and sea level.

This study uses mental models analysis to determine the extent to which research subjects understand the coastal processes and aspects of climate change relevant to the Matunuck coastline, and to determine the extent to which this understanding has informed what subjects identify as the most viable solution. In other words, subjects’ understanding of the science is measured and then compared with their chosen erosion solution. Property rights beliefs, the most common of the political factors mentioned above, are considered as well. The research subjects in this study are key players in the planning process, specifically private property and business owners in Matunuck, South Kingstown Town Council members, South Kingstown government officials, and Coastal Resources Management Council members.

The results of the thesis show that subjects have low levels of comprehensiveness when comparing subject models to an expert model, and there are a few concepts that subjects commonly brought up that fall outside of the expert model. There is no relationship between mental model comprehensiveness scores and what management options subjects believe are best; in other words, how much a subject knows about the natural science is unrelated to what they think should be done to address the problem of shoreline retreat. Finally, while comprehensiveness cannot explain management choices for each subject, subjects’ beliefs about property rights and the shore (whether coastal armoring should be a private property right) can help to explain subjects’ management choices.