Research & Innovation

Weather, Beaten: Stevens Steps Up As a Global Leader in Resilience Research

Resilience researchers at work
Stevens' CRUX team examines an overlay image of Hoboken flood waters

At nearly $70 billion, Superstorm Sandy was the second-most costly storm in U.S. history, trailing only Katrina. Some 650,000 houses were destroyed, more than 40 New York-area residents perished and at least six local hospitals were forced to shutter and relocate patients during the height of the worst weather. Coastal towns were submerged, boardwalks washed away. Homes, businesses and a five-story-tall roller coaster floated off the Jersey Shore.

“Frankly as a nation and as a region, we were unprepared,” said U.S. Senator Charles Schumer of New York.

With more than 3 billion worldwide living in or very near coastal areas, it’s not the last time a storm will score a direct strike on a major urban area.

And Stevens is determined to help prepare cities and citizens worldwide for the next extreme weather events.

Leading a Global Examination of Resilience

Researchers have concluded definitively that damaging storms are becoming stronger and more frequent, and that the increased threat to life, property and the environment must be addressed immediately.

Stevens will play a major role in that conversation, says Michael Bruno, dean of Stevens’ Schaefer School of Engineering & Science.

“These systems — software, the subway, power, water and food supplies — are not just engineered systems. You can’t take the people out of them. People design them, operate them, keep them running and get them back up and running, and this is not something that is always taught or accounted for in traditional engineering curricula.”

To begin rethinking the discipline, the university has joined forces with a powerful agent for change: the Lloyd’s Register Foundation (LRF), a London-based charitable foundation that supports engineering education, public engagement and research. In April 2015, Stevens hosted the Lloyd’s Register Foundation International Workshop on Resilience Engineering to explore areas including engineering, informatics, urban planning, emergency preparedness and policy.

Experts from 12 nations and five continents converged on campus for the event. Participants included Google, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Sandia National Laboratories, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency and universities from Japan, Australia, Brazil, Singapore, the Netherlands and England.

“We could not have found a better partner,” said Ruth Boumphrey, head of research grants for the Foundation.

The workshop produced a foresight report detailing the concept of resilience engineering and the complex financial, managerial, policy, planning, engineering and other challenges to building resiliency and improving risk response. Its proposed short- and longer-term solutions include:

  • Better antibiotics to treat weather-related disease outbreaks
  • Carbon-smart vehicles and industries
  • More intelligent energy and communications systems
  • “Blue” and “green” architecture that can better absorb weather through natural landscaping and smarter materials
  • Resilience incentives as a component of both development loans and property insurance policies
  • Data-driven management of emergency services, shipping operations and other activities
  • Immediate “triage” of aging urban infrastructures in coastal communities to pinpoint urgent needs from a resiliency standpoint

Preparing Regional Commuters, Residents

Locally, Stevens will also lead the charge to create new tools and models, collect data and test solutions relating to extreme weather events in the metro area.

Stevens’ Center for Coastal Resilience and Urban eXcellence (CRUX) — headed by former New York City chief urban designer Alexandros Washburn — integrates knowledge in hydrodynamics, ocean engineering and other fields with emerging research from Stevens’ School of Systems & Enterprises, the National University of Singapore, Technical University Delft in the Netherlands, University College London in England and the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

Working closely with the city of Hoboken, CRUX will use the city as a live resilience and urban design laboratory:

  • The SMART Hoboken project, a collaboration with city officials, will manage a network of sensors placed around Hoboken, sampling temperature, carbon dioxide and a host of other variables, then feeding them back to a central Stevens lab for analysis.
  • The VIRTUAL Hoboken project will create a software model of the city that blends Stevens’ NYHOPS data on climate, tides and storm surges with SMART Hoboken’s measurements of the city environment to enable better planning and prediction.
  • Student teams will assist the city in infrastructure planning. One student group, for instance, will prototype, build and operate “sewer-bots” that prowl the city's sewage system to map and identify trouble spots.
  • A new test facility in the Griffith Building on Sinatra Drive will be designed to rebound within three days of a Sandy-sized event. Innovations will include special walls that allow water to flow around the structure; doors that open gently outward during floods; green landscaping to absorb some of the force of rising waters; and a system of sensors.
  • And CRUX will manage a new 12-credit Stevens graduate certificate program that teaches the hydrodynamics of the oceans and rivers in the metro area; advances intelligent, yet elegant, urban design; and models complex systems such as weather and emergency to help officials and residents prepare for more extreme weather.

“Nobody else can do this,” explains Washburn. “Stevens is uniquely positioned: We are literally right here, at the joining of these bodies of water and the nexus of these issues, and we possess the deep, objective scientific expertise in everything from civil engineering to materials to computation to hydrodynamics to pull it all together."

Data As The Key Ingredient

Outside agencies have taken notice with new support for Stevens resilience research:

  • In the fall of 2014, the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey awarded a five-year, $6.6 million contract to the university for resilience research. Under that award, Davidson Laboratory researchers are building models providing street-by-street forecasts to help predict and plan for storm surges and other extreme weather events.

    “Decisions whether to shelter in place or evacuate, or even where to move your car, should be made with confidence, and we are hoping that this system, once fully deployed, will provide that confidence,” said Stevens professor of ocean engineering Alan Blumberg, director of the Davidson Laboratory and a lead investigator in the project with professors Nickitas Georgas Ph.D. ’10 and Thomas Herrington ’89 M.Eng. ’92 Ph.D. ’97.

    The award will also support purchase and installation of 26 new sensors in New York Harbor to measure water levels, temperature and salinity and transmit that data in real time to the Stevens supercomputer.

    “The data,” notes Herrington, “is a key ingredient to making better and better forecasts.”
  • In February 2015, New Jersey Transit also awarded support to CRUX to create a system providing real-time warning and forecast information for flood events in the Garden State. That work will draw on Stevens’ development of NYHOPS and the Stevens Storm Surge Warning System, two visualization tools that accurately raised warnings about Sandy’s flood levels in advance of the superstorm’s arrival. NJ TRANSIT's new warning system will focus on Hoboken Terminal and the Meadows Maintenance Complex in Kearny, two of the state's largest facilities for passenger rail transit and equipment storage.
  • In June 2015, Blumberg and researcher Philip Orton were named to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's Third New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC3). The panel, an independent body of 19 regional experts in climate change, geography, engineering and modeling, will advise the city on climate risks and resiliency to help inform policy, prediction, preparation and adaptation.
  • In September 2015, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded support to Stevens professor Jose Ramirez-Marquez and collaborators at the University of Oklahoma, University of Virginia and University of Wisconsin-Madison to investigate analytics related to the infrastructure of large urban areas during disruptive events.

As the concept of resilience engineering edges into the mainstream, Bruno predicts it will greatly influence the future design and adaptation of communities worldwide, as well as the future of engineering education.

“It’s clear that cities will lead this effort, and many of us believe you can have it both ways: a more resilient city that is also a better, more attractive city,” he concludes. “We’ve seen this in the Netherlands, for example, where a beautiful park also doubles as a flood control system. Maybe building a huge wall isn’t the best way anymore, from either standpoint — the design or the science — and that’s what Stevens is here to help explore.”