Research & Innovation

The Climate Is Changing. Stevens Is Helping Plan, Prepare and Adapt.

Research from flood forecast and warning systems to satellites, sensors, batteries, new building materials

The year-round weather in New York City is predicted to warm to that of Arkansas within as little as 60 years. Summers in many places haven’t been this warm in more than one thousand centuries, and the planet’s ice caps are melting much more quickly than was previously thought.

Storms are becoming more severe, too.

In 2021 New York and New Jersey took direct hits from tropical storms Henri and Ida within two weeks, while Texans lost power for a week just months after record rainfalls and floods. Louisiana also took a devastating direct hurricane hit.

The 2022 storm season was another active one (Hurricane Ian did more than $110 billion in total damage), while 2023 featured devastating wildfires in Maui that killed more than 100 and in Canada that filled the Northeastern U.S. for weeks with a smoky haze.

And that's just North America. Why is it all getting worse?

Heat cycles drive stronger storms and floods

The U.S. government's just-released Fifth National Climate Assessment confirms what has been known for years: it is now scientifically certain that the global atmosphere and the world’s oceans are warming, driven by manufacturing, agriculture and fossil fuel combustion.

Global warming that doesn’t just mean a pleasant mildness to future winters. It 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.

And Stevens is working on each of these fronts to help communities plan, prepare and adapt to the new reality of more extreme weather.

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.

Stevens NYHOPS river flow visualizationStevens' NYHOPS river- and harbor-condition forecasting tool updates in real time

“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 changing climate. In spring of 2023, Stevens hosted Building NJ Resilience, an effort to gather New Jersey planners, officials, researchers and other interested parties to discuss this urgent challenge.

Stevens faculty have also stepped up with a number of innovations, tools, applications and technologies to help both mitigate and cope with climate change:

  • Civil engineering professor Yi Bao develops greener, lower-carbon, more resilient building materials that appear to scrub greenhouse-warming gases from the air.

  • Physicist Knut Stamnes collaborates with NASA and other partners to improve environmental monitoring of the planet. Stamnes’ lab team 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. Recently the lab has developed algorithms to solve the problem of light bouncing off dust particles and scattering (blurring) imagery as it travels through Earth’s atmosphere and back from satellite-riding instruments.

  • Maroune Temimi also develops algorithmic methods to monitor river flow (working with Stevens professor Kaijian Liu) and urban water supplies (in collaboration with NASA) by processing and analyzing satellite, camera and video imagery.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Mechanical engineer 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

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 Stevens Vice Provost for Research and Innovation Ed Synakowski. “We will continue to assist communities and engineer new technologies for future climate change.”

Learn more about academic programs and research in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Ocean Engineering: