Research & Innovation

At Stevens Conference, Climate Change Leaders Examine Serious Impact of Extreme Weather

Few of us who were here in the New York City metropolitan area in the summer of 2011 will ever forget Hurricane Irene, one of the largest and most destructive hurricanes to ever hit the east coast of the United States. Or what about the record-setting, havoc-wreaking freak snowstorm in October 2011 that caused states of emergency declared up and down the east coast?

Worldwide, extreme weather events like hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, flooding, heat waves and winter weather are occurring with increasing frequency over the last decade, and are expected to become even more prevalent as the Earth’s climate changes.

On June 26 and 27, Stevens hosted Impacts of Extreme Climate Events on Urban Coasts, a conference dedicated to building understanding of extreme weather in a changing climate. Bringing together approximately 70 academic scientists, leading engineers, industry-researchers, government-decision makers and students, the conference specifically focused on the impact of extreme climate events on urban coasts, which – due to their dense populations and potential for destruction from both the sea and sky – are especially vulnerable to substantial human, economic and ecological loss from extreme weather.

“Among the biggest problems facing society are climate change and sea level rise, especially in the 136 port cities around the world that have more than one million inhabitants,” said Alan Blumberg, Stevens professor and director of the Davidson Laboratory/Center for Maritime Systems, a nationally-renowned hydrodynamic and ocean engineering research center based at Stevens. “Our goal is to make people aware of what these changes are doing to our environment, especially what the impacts could be on the most populous urban coasts.”

The conference was among the first that brought both scientists and engineers together to address the important issues. It began with a keynote address by Adam Parris of the NOAA Climate Program Office, who discussed how scientists and decision-makers can work together to prepare for and adapt to climate change. Then, in individual presentations and panel discussions, guest speakers such as Dr. Timothy Hall, senior scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (NASA/GISS), Dr. W. Richard Peltier, a renowned University of Toronto climate scientist, and Dr. Suzana Camargo of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory shared the latest research and knowledge of the science behind extreme climate events.

“Communities are most affected by changes in the frequency of local climate extremes, not global air temperature averages, and there has been an uptick in the most intense events like extreme heat and extreme rainfall,” Hall said.

Camargo, who has studies patterns in the tracks of Atlantic hurricanes, showed how improvements to current hurricane models can help better predict how climactic factors will impact where hurricanes make landfall. Peltier shared a process which can predict U.S. east coast sea level rise by taking into account the ongoing melting of a 21,000 year old ice sheet near Baltimore, Md. 

Other presenters focused on how best to communicate climate risk to key stakeholders and the public, using the Web, social media and other techniques. Speakers included Dr. Jeff Masters, co-founder, board member and director of Meteorology at Weather Underground, a weather data and services website, and Dr. Ben Strauss, chief operating officer and director of the Program on Sea Level Rise at Climate Central, a nonprofit climate science news and research organization. Masters said the public best responds to simple, clear messages about global warming free of scientific jargon. Strauss added that including targeted, local information about immediate risks makes the public more apt to pay attention.

Following a luncheon, more speakers addressed the most urgent challenges and obstacles that hinder practical solutions to protecting coastal cities, focusing on reducing the financial, infrastructure and public health risks of hurricanes, sea level rise and other hazards. The first day of the conference concluded with breakout sessions dedicated to dialogue about projecting and forecasting extreme weather, as well as the stakeholder perspective on what is “acceptable risk.”

The emphasis on the second day of the conference was on urban coastal planning for extreme events. Michael Marrella from the New York City Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability shared structural and educational initiatives underway for reducing erosion and coastal flooding risks to New York City’s waterfront. Scott Schwarz from the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and Carl Spector of the City of Boston Air Pollution Control Commission outlined their cities’ Climate Adaptation Plans. Larry Atkinson, Director of the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative at Old Dominion University, shared case studies on human adaptation strategies to reduce the threat of flooding of Norfolk, Virginia Beach and other nearby cities.

The conference was sponsored by the Coastal Zone Community of Partners, Group on Earth Observations, which provides forecasts and other information required for informed decisions concerning the coastal zones, and the Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast (a NOAA RISA project), which conducts research to reduce climate-related vulnerability in the urban Northeast. It was organized by Blumberg and Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at NASA/GISS, where she heads the Climate Impacts Group.

“Stevens is proud to host this group of the climate change leadership to innovate solutions to the problem of extreme climate events,” said Blumberg. “This conference represents an important advance in our work on climate change.”