September 13, 2019

Addressing the U.N. Climate Change Summit in 2014, President Barack Obama said,

“For all the immediate challenges that we gather to address this week—terrorism, instability, inequality, disease—there’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.”

Indeed, the relentless rise in global atmospheric temperature, driven by the greenhouse gases released by fossil fuel combustion and other human activities, is the root cause of a host of challenges facing the planet and bedeviling humanity. Itself a highly complex physical phenomenon, involving a host of intertwining physical, chemical, and biological systems, climate change and its multitude of impacts demand a multifaceted response from us.

Researchers and scholars at WPI view the changing climate through many lenses. They see its telltale fingerprints everywhere: in the ever more-powerful storms that batter our coasts, for example, and in the ever more-ravenous fires that consume our forests. They also see how these phenomena create a pressing need for greater resiliency—in our infrastructure, our habitats, and our communities.

They observe how a warming world exacerbates society’s inequalities; how its effects (rising waters, deluges, and droughts) fall disproportionately on those who are the least responsible for its causes. And they understand how important it is that those with greater means help those with less, so things don’t go from bad to worse.

They see how the slow drip of climate change can make us complacent, and lock us into the very habits that are precipitating our planet’s collapse. They recognize how urgent it is that resignation be displaced by more productive emotions, like anger and even fear. And optimism, for they also see that bold technological solutions to a warming climate are possible, if there is a will and the ingenuity to bring them to fruition.

In this story, you will hear five of those researchers and scholars and learn what they see when they study the changing world with the benefit of their distinctive expertise and unique viewpoints. Their voices echo WPI’s long heritage of not simply acknowledging problems, but crafting practical solutions. For in the end, these voices may be chilled by today’s harsh reality, but they are also warmed by the prospect of a better world we can build together.

The Road to Change

Mingjiang Tao, Associate Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering

The United States has witnessed numerous natural disasters in recent years that have resulted in the the flooding of thousands of roadways. In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma inundated streets and roads in Texas and Florida, with the cost of repairing the destruction wrought by Harvey alone estimated at $125 billion; in 2018, Hurricanes Florence and Michael each caused some $25 billion in damage in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, and the 2019 season can be expected to bring even more destruction. The challenge of assessing damage to flooded pavements is one test agencies will likely face more often in the decades ahead, as climatologists predict an increase in extreme weather events.

Depending on its characteristics and on the condition of the pavement, a flood can cause various degrees of harm to roadways—from washing away structures to indirect damage, such as weakening the pavement’s loading capacity.

Flood-induced visual damage to roadways is well recognized and documented. However, the injury to pavement structures that remain intact (i.e., not washed out) during a flooding event are not well understood or can go unnoticed. Quite often, flooding results in deterioration or weakening of underlying pavement layers, and such damage may not be visible on the surface.

After the floodwater has receded, pavement agencies, such as state and local municipalities departments of transportation, have to make decisions regarding the safety of roadways, assess repairability, and make decisions as to when it’s safe to reopen a flooded road to different types of traffic. Severely damaged pavement can cause the surface to fail catastrophically under a relatively heavy vehicle, such as a fully loaded truck used for removing debris, whereas a moderately damaged pavement would show signs of structural failure. Therefore, it is highly imperative to conduct studies to identify the best practice of assessing flood-induced damages to roadways. The results can help in allocating resources for post-flooding investigative actions, and help identify vulnerable sections to allow pre-flood precautions or corrective actions to prevent or minimize damage after flooding.

A holistic framework for evaluating flooding risk of roadways was proposed by researchers at WPI, who considered degree of hazard (i.e., flooding), vulnerabilities, and consequence. Through our research, we have developed a quantitative, composite risk indicator for evaluating the resilience of roadways exposed to flooding.

It is a product of hazard, vulnerability, and consequence, and a function of storm characteristics, pavement characteristics, and functional class of pavement and traffic volume. A flooding risk map was developed based on these risk factors in a space of criticality factor consequence, as well as a risk factor–based hierarchical engineering evaluation procedure. This is recommended to aid decision makers to (1) select appropriate engineering methods to evaluate flood-induced damage for immediate post-flood response; (2) decide when a flooded roadway can be reopened to what type of vehicles; (3) allocate funds and resources in advance to protect roadways that run through areas that are at a high risk of flooding in the long term.

As more extreme weather pounds the roadways around the world, WPI researchers hope our work can keep those roads safe for travel of all kinds for decades to come.

Learn more about the Pavement Research Laboratory and other Civil & Environmental Engineering research at WPI.

Climate Crisis: Time to Stop Digging

Roger Gottlieb, Professor, Philosophy

“You don’t hit bottom,” says a 12-step adage, “until you stop digging.” In other words, when we are reckless, thoughtless, destructively selfish—and when this leads in a very bad direction—we can still cling to the damaging behavior, close our eyes, turn our backs, and distract.

Our global climate crisis—part of an encompassing environmental disaster that includes staggering pollution and biodiversity loss—is a case in point. Hundreds of thousands of acres of Midwestern farmland under water for months, hundreds of billions of dollars in climate losses, and tens of millions of climate refugees per year are just some of the present realities.

But the response of our political, economic, technological, educational, and spiritual leaders is still way below the scope of what’s needed. Nations commit to lowering their carbon output and fail to meet their commitments. Leading countries (e.g., China, India, Brazil, Russia, U.S.) are cowed by or choose leaders who put military power, economic “growth,” religious/racial/gender/ethnic oppression, and repression of dissent far above the serious and total commitment needed.

Crocodile tears shed by top corporations about reducing their carbon footprints are never, ever accompanied by imploring people to actually consume less, use less, fly less, drive less. Fossil fuel giants, hedging their bets with some investments in renewables, are still relentlessly pursuing the ultimate goal: get all of it out of the ground, sell it, and burn it. Universities advertise their green commitments, but their trustees refuse to consider divesting from fossil fuel portfolios.

The result? The percent of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise, to about 415 parts per million currently. The year 2018 set a record year for annual greenhouse gas emissions—all this in spite of the brave and dedicated work of groups like, Sunrise, Sierra, and Greenpeace; the student strikes for action on climate crisis (not climate change); proposals for a Green New Deal; and all the rest.

How to respond to all this?

First, with anger. To say as loudly as possible that this crime of environmental ruin is putting our entire civilization at risk.

As well, there is fear for a future that is deeply in doubt; and grief for what has been lost.

And, possibly, a sobering realization: It may be decades, even centuries— if at all—before humanity may learn environmental values: love of life, respect for ecosystems, modesty in consumption, great care in the implementation of technology, and that community and personal virtue are the sources of true well-being.

It may be that centuries from now people will look back at today’s environmentalists and say, “How brave and far-sighted … and how lonely and despairing they must have felt at times. Isn’t it wonderful they did anything at all?”

So I am not offering hope, merely courage. This is what I try to communicate to my students—in everything from having them get to know one particular tree very well to asking tough questions about environmental justice, animal rights, and whether anything is more important than the future of life on earth.

I hope we can inspire each other to have courage to keep the faith and try to show our fellow humans that that there is a better way to live.

We don’t—we really don’t—have to keep digging.

Building a Resilient Society in Response to Wildfires

Albert Simeoni, Department Head, Fire Protection Engineering

It has become a very familiar theme: every year we witness the increased burden that wildfires impose on society, in the United States and abroad. Wildfires have more and more dramatic consequences, from the megafires of 2017 and 2018 in California to the accident that happened in March 2019 in China’s Sichuan province, where 30 firefighters were entrapped and died in a wildfire.

This increase is fueled by two main factors: the dramatic increase of the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where vegetation and structures are in contact, and climate change, which is creating worse and more frequent wildfire conditions.

When contemplating the future, one thing can be taken for granted: fire is part of the ecosystem and will never go away. So, we have to learn how to live with it and to become more resilient to it. To do so, we need to answer many questions that are already difficult but become blurred with climate change: what are the optimal fire management strategies that will help decrease the occurrence of catastrophic fires or what is the most efficient way to protect people and property at the WUI? Of course, future solutions will have to be balanced with other issues linked to economic activity, conservation efforts, ecological services, and lifestyle choices. But if we do not act now, wildfires will continue to grow as a major disruptor that limits our choices and makes all the other problems much more difficult to solve.

At WPI we are developing new knowledge in collaboration with external partners in government (U.S. Forest Service), the nonprofit sector (Tall Timbers), and academia (University of Notre Dame).

To cope with the changing conditions, we are getting back to the fundamentals in order to provide the scientific basis needed to understand the processes driving extreme fire behavior and fire impact.

We are developing tools to support designing fire-resistant communities, developing new fire management strategies, better estimating extreme fire risk, and improving firefighter safety. Many of these issues are multidisciplinary, so we need to collaborate with other fields and leverage our local talent. An example is our fledging collaboration with WPI’s Robotics Engineering Program to enhance firefighter safety in fire conditions.

In a rapidly changing environment, when the usefulness of past experience is decreasing, research really shows its value as the best way to understand, predict, and adapt to the major challenges faced by our societies.

Learn more about fire protection engineering research at WPI

The Case for Directly Removing CO2 from the Air

Jennifer Wilcox, James Manning Professor of Chemical Engineering

As a global society we have been burning fossil fuels to meet our energy and transportation needs since the start of the industrial revolution. This has resulted in atmospheric CO2 concentrations much greater than at any other time during the last 650,000 years. That concentration reached a record 415 parts per million in May 2019. The replacement of fossil fuels with renewables, advances in energy efficiency, and carbon capture and storage are among the key strategies required to prevent warming beyond 2°C within this century. But they will not be enough. We need to ramp up our efforts in reducing CO2 emissions, and then we need to do even more.

The Earth’s natural systems, such as forests and oceans, are capable of removing roughly half of global CO2 emissions each year, while the rest steadily accumulates in the atmosphere. Until now, our best approach to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change was simply to avoid such emissions in the first place. But because of our failure to act quickly and at a large enough scale, we are now faced with the need to go beyond that strategy—to actually start removing CO2 directly from the air. Trees and oceans already do this, but these systems are overwhelmed. Manufactured or synthetic removal systems are designed to pull CO2 from the atmosphere, and at a much faster rate than natural systems.

At WPI, our work in the Clean Energy Conversions Lab focuses on accelerating the deployment of such systems, which are also known as negative emissions technologies.

To achieve this, we investigate pathways that help reduce the costs of CO2 removal from such a dilute system (air). The technologies that allow for CO2 removal include the acceleration of natural processes as well as synthetic approaches that use CO2-selective chemicals and large air contactors for removal. These technologies are valuable tools for reducing emissions since they not only remove CO2 that has accumulated in the atmosphere over time, but can also offset difficult-to-avoid emissions such as those associated with transportation, agriculture, and materials-based industries such as cement, pulp and paper, iron and steel, and refining.

Given the urgency of climate disruption, more rapid progress must be made to bring these technologies online. The portfolio of solutions should always include, first and foremost, reducing our CO2 emissions. But we will need to also include CO2 removal from the air if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Building Resilient Communities—Together

Rob Krueger, Director of International Development, Environment, and Sustainability

The world’s most economically disadvantaged people—those living in developing countries in the Global South—are also the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. How can we do a better job of helping them cope?

Institutions from wealthier nations (the United Nations and the German Adaptation Fund, among them) are making investments to help these populations adapt, but those efforts are clouded by development aid’s flawed past. Since World War II, developed countries have sought to ‘modernize’ developing countries through large infrastructure projects like dams and power plants. These projects have sometimes worsened the lives of the people they were meant to help.

For a generation, social scientists have been studying the economic, social, and environmental impacts of such development projects. They’ve found that they relied heavily on top-down processes, often biased in favor of purely technological solutions, and overlooked or even ignored the perspectives of the local citizens.

I’ve been working with dozens of WPI colleagues to develop new theory and practice for responding to issues associated with the inequity of climate change and development.

Our goal is to develop transdisciplinary approaches to problem solving, which require scholars, students, communities, and other stakeholders to work together closely to understand a problem’s multiple dimensions and co-design solutions.

To do this well, we must understand the communities we work with. Our goal should be engagement, not education.

We have two main projects, currently. The first is a new project center in Dwenase, Ghana, where WPI juniors, seniors, and graduate students can explore issues related to climate change and community resilience.

For example, we are working with the community to mitigate flooding around the local health center, which will require determining the appropriate gradient around the center, and then, with the community, regrading the site to incorporate green infrastructure principles for flood mitigation.

The second, in collaboration with researchers and students at Clark University, involves climate resilience in mega cities of the Global South— Mexico City and Accra are our initial test sites. We’re looking at gateway sectors, such as water quality and scarcity, food security, energy systems, and transport system resilience.

Both projects seek to add to the emergent concept of “development engineering” by expanding the role of stakeholders to include communities, local governments, researchers, NGOs, and the like, who come together with a common goal of working collaboratively on this massive global challenge—one community at a time.