In 2020, the United States experienced extreme droughts, wildfires, flooding, and a record number of hurricanes. What if there was a better way to monitor and prepare for these natural events, and how could an Engineering With Nature (EWN) approach add value to “the climate change imperative?” That’s what we’re exploring in this episode with Safra Altman, PhD, Research Ecologist in the Environmental Laboratory at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Marshall Shepherd, PhD, Meteorologist and Director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia. Through the Network for Engineering With Nature (N-EWN), Safra and Marshall have initiated a project to assess pre- and postdisaster monitoring. What they learn will be an important part of a bigger project to ultimately help improve community resilience to climate change and extreme weather events by applying EWN approaches.
Marshall describes the climate change imperative: “We have no Plan B. If my house breaks down, I can go buy another house. I can’t hop to another planet.” He notes, “There’s a new ‘normal’ climate system emerging. A part of Engineering With Nature is understanding how the climate is changing; what the impacts are; and more importantly, what are the things that can be done, from an engineering or scientific standpoint, including mitigation and adaptation.”
Putting the climate change imperative into perspective, Safra notes that, “globally, sea level has risen about 8 inches since 1900. In specific areas and coastlines, the rate can be different. In Louisiana, the sea level has risen 8 inches in the last 50 years, due to a combination of rising oceans and sinking land.” When sea level rise is combined with stronger storms, the resulting storm surge and inland flooding — which can be the deadliest part of a hurricane – can have significant impacts on natural habitats, animals and people who live on coasts, along with anyone who is reliant on the commerce of affected coastal ports and riverine systems.
The impacts are particularly severe for marginalized and disenfranchised people, something Marshall calls “the weather gap.” The poorest communities tend to bear the brunt of extreme weather and climate. As he explains, climate vulnerability is determined by exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. So, even if people are equally exposed to a hurricane or flood, some communities, some people, and some buildings will be more sensitive to the impact of that exposure. In Hurricane Katrina, for example, many of the people who were sheltering in the Superdome were the poorest and most vulnerable and, after the hurricane, the least able to adapt and recover. By looking at vulnerable communities through what Marshall calls “the lens of equity,” factors that can help quantify climate vulnerability, such as race, health insurance coverage, access to hospitals, availability of heating and cooling in homes, and so on, can be taken into consideration. He adds that vulnerability “is not just about how strong the storm is.”
The project Safra and Marshall have initiated is part of a broader project N-EWN is undertaking to help communities address the impacts of climate change, adapt, and become more resilient. Applying an EWN approach will help N-EWN collaborators determine how best to integrate advances in EWN processes to optimize flood risk reduction to protect communities, and importantly, how to meaningfully engage vulnerable communities in understanding the challenges and participating in the codevelopment of sustainable solutions.
Safra and Marshall are focused on gathering data on storm events and impacts on natural habitats to help build the case for EWN-type solutions. They recently hosted a virtual workshop with experts who collect pre- and postevent data to understand the challenges of gathering local data and what is needed to overcome these gaps. They wanted to understand the state of the science for monitoring these events. As Safra explains, “We quickly realized that that the data is typically not aggregated, and there are not a lot of EWN projects we can use, but there are lots of storm events and natural habitats that we can use as a proxy for EWN-type projects to build the case. Through case studies and examples, we can demonstrate that these Engineering With Nature solutions would be a cost benefit and really helpful in protecting our coastal communities.” Better data is key to understanding and ultimately developing more resilient natural systems and enabling communities to adapt and become more resilient to climate change and extreme weather events. Their project is an important piece in the broader puzzle—how to quantify and reduce climate vulnerability through innovative, multidisciplinary approaches.