Arctic summers haven’t been this warm in more than one thousand centuries. Both of the planet’s ice caps are melting far more quickly than previously believed. Texans lost power for a week during a devastating February cold snap, just five months after enduring record-rainfall storms. The year-round weather in New York City may resemble that of Arkansas within as little as 60 years.
It is now scientifically certain that the global atmosphere and the world’s oceans are warming, driven by human manufacturing, agriculture and fossil fuel combustion.
But that doesn’t just mean a pleasant mildness to future winters. Global warming also drives increased droughts and wildfires; stronger, more frequent hurricanes, tropical storms and winter storms; and dangerous coastal flooding and sea level rise. It’s the reason fisheries are shrinking, crops and water supplies are already at risk, and coastal and near-coastal properties are in peril. Climate change-driven floods have caused more than $2 billion worth of damage, in the U.S. alone, every year for more than three decades.
This planetary warming cannot be halted anytime soon. But it can be forecast, adapted to and possibly slowed.
During a 2020 virtual lecture at Stevens, PSEG Chairman and CEO Ralph Izzo discussed this urgent challenge and described a number of strategies that he believes will all be needed, in combination, to combat climate change. Those strategies include global reductions in carbon emissions; the development of novel energy conservation technologies; and increased investment in renewable energy sources and electric vehicles.
Stevens Institute of Technology, it turns out, is working on each of these fronts.
Emergency planning, flood forecast expertise
As hurricanes, tropical storm-fueled rainy spells and crippling snowstorms become stronger and more frequent, emergency planners will need to deliver ever more timely and accurate public information to help us all prepare for storms, surges and floods.
Directed by professor and researcher Muhammad Hajj since 2018, Stevens’ Davidson Laboratory has long provided significant national leadership in the modeling and forecasting of extreme events. The lab created and maintains two leading forecasting and warning tools, NYHOPS and the Stevens Flood Advisory System (SFAS), to anticipate and warn of extreme flood and surge events.
“Most days, the Stevens Flood Advisory System is the first piece of information I check in the morning,” Caleb Stratton, chief resilience officer for the City of Hoboken and a key manager of the city’s work on the $230 million Rebuild by Design flood preparedness project, has said of SFAS. “Accurate records and projections of surge allow us to escalate our emergency operations in real time.”
The university has also supplied data and modeling to New York City, down to the level of street-by-street flood forecasts; to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, including under a recently awarded $4.9 million contract; to New Jersey Transit; and to the National Weather Service, among other entities. Davidson Lab researcher Philip Orton is part of the effort to predict, prepare for and combat future sea-level rise.
“We are talking about flooded streets, homes, high-traffic expressways and boulevards, subways,” explains Orton. Certain low-lying neighborhoods of New York City, his research has revealed, can expect to flood on a monthly basis in as little as 30 years. Orton advises vulnerable neighborhoods such as Canarsie and Hamilton Park with updated forecasts and modeling.
“The infrastructure of the city was not engineered to factor in either the sea rising or frequent flooding inland,” he notes. “That’s going to become a problem.”
Orton has also produced research, in collaboration with Rutgers University, Tufts University and other institutions, to quantify for the first time how human-caused climatic change exacerbated the damaging effects of 2012's Hurricane Sandy.
Reza Marsooli, another Davidson Lab researcher, models river and coastal flooding, storm surges and wave hazards during periods of changing climate. With approximately 95 million Americans — nearly a third of the U.S. population — residing in coastal regions, his methods can potentially assist cities and coastal communities nationwide.
Marsooli recently published findings concluding the Jamaica Bay neighborhood of New York City will soon begin flooding much more frequently as well.
“While this study was specific to Jamaica Bay, it shows how drastic and costly an impact climate change will make,” Marsooli comments. “The framework we used for this study can also be replicated to demonstrate how flooding in other regions will look by the end of the century, to help mitigate risk and best protect communities.”
Intelligent engineering for tomorrow’s climate
Physically engineered solutions will also be urgently needed to respond to the challenge of climate change. Here, once again, Stevens researchers have stepped up with new research and innovations:
- Civil engineering researcher Yi Bao develops greener, lower-carbon, more resilient building materials that appear to scrub greenhouse-warming gases from the air. A team led by materials scientists Fei Tian and Henry Du and chemist Junfeng Liang is developing a novel, fiber-based sensor coated with specially engineered hydrogels that can be integrated into a portable, reliable monitor of ocean salinity — a key marker of climate change.
- Fellow mechanical engineering professor Chang-Hwan Choi engineers nature-inspired surfaces. Choi's work in ice adhesion and anti-icing may be applicable to the winterization of wind-energy turbines such as those that froze and ceased functioning in Texas.
- Physicist Knut Stamnes and his team in the university’s Light and Life Lab collaborate with NASA and other partners to improve environmental monitoring of the planet. Stamnes’ group develops and enhances methods to improve remote sensing and satellite imagery — producing clearer images of oceans, coastlines, reefs, glaciers and other features used to assess climate health. Most recently, the team has been tasked with creating algorithms to solve the problem of light bouncing off dust particles and scattering (blurring imagery) as it travels through Earth’s multi-layered atmosphere and back from satellite-borne instruments.
- Ocean engineering expert Jon Miller ’99 works with federal, state and local agencies, industries and organizations to monitor coastlines and the effects of climate change and storms, designing innovative approaches such as beach nourishment and so-called living shorelines to protect coastal landscapes.
Boosting renewable energy, trimming emissions
Since much of the planet’s warming is driven by carbon emissions, the creation and optimization of renewable, lower-emission energy sources will also play a key role in slowing the atmospheric warming process. Wind, solar, hydropower and other lower-impact alternatives will soon replace fossil fuels.
Rising to this challenge, Stevens research teams are investigating and developing novel energy production, consumption and storage technologies — and with the support of major government partners.
Working closely with the Department of Defense, environmental engineering professor Christos Christodoulatos Ph.D. ’91 and his faculty and student teams in Stevens’ Center for Environmental Systems conduct ongoing efforts to develop and enhance biofuel technologies to cultivate and utilize microalgae oil as an energy source.
Electrical and computer engineering professor Lei Wu, supported by multiple Department of Energy funding awards, designs artificial intelligence-powered technologies that can optimize the energy efficiency of power grids.
Mechanical engineering professor Nick Parziale models and tests designs for new types of biomass energy generators, developing research protected by a U.S. patent issued in 2019.
And systems researcher Philip Odonkor, an expert in net-zero energy building clusters, combines data about energy use in structures with artificial intelligence techniques to leverage insights and automate and optimize energy use.
“As a leading technology institution located on a major estuary in a major metropolitan area, Stevens has long produced research aimed at forecasting storm surges,” concludes Vice Provost for Research & Innovation Dilhan Kalyon. “We will continue to assist communities and engineer new technologies for future climate change.”