Feature left bracketright bracket Spring 2021

Climate Change and the “A Word”

Scientists and engineers at WPI are helping the world adapt to the inevitable changes that a warming climate is bringing to the planet.

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For a long time, says Professor Sarah Strauss, researchers working on the front lines of climate change considered “adaptation” to be a bad word. “This has been an issue in dealing with climate change up until relatively recently,” says Strauss, who came to WPI’s new Global School from the University of Wyoming in 2019. “We were hoping we could stave it off, so the focus was on mitigation. You really did hear people calling it ‘the A-word’; research was not geared toward adaptation.”

At one time this attitude might have made sense. If global powers had only worked together to figure out how to reduce carbon emissions, perhaps the worst effects of climate change could have been avoided. But instead, nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in just the last decade and a half. Global surface temperatures are now half a degree Celsius above the average recorded between 1986 and 2005. And several more degrees of warming are predicted by the end of the century, portending a host of effects from rising sea levels and stronger hurricanes to more frequent wildfires and persistent droughts.

With change inevitable, “adaptation” is no longer a bad word. In fact, researchers are increasingly looking at how our communities can use design and engineering to weather the crisis. That includes a cluster of professors at WPI whose research offers insights into how human cultures influence the way we feel about change, how communities can make better decisions about using limited resources, and how we can reshape our cities and systems to be more resilient. As they work on projects in the United States and around the world, they are also mentoring a new generation of social scientists and engineers—young people who will have no choice but to take on the challenge of climate change and help lead human society through it.

Culture, Justice, and Power

With a background in cultural anthropology and public health, Strauss has conducted research around the world, examining the important role that culture plays in how people make decisions about local resources. One community she spent time in is the Alpine village of Leukerbad, Switzerland, which, with its economy built around tourism at ski resorts and thermal springs, depends for its very survival on a reliable supply of water, whether bubbling up from below or coming down as snow.

“They used to be able to ski from the top of the mountain down to the valley, and by the early 2000s they’d had to give up the lower slopes, because there wasn’t enough snow,” Strauss says. “A question that came up when I was working there was ‘Should we invest in more snow cannons to make more artificial snow?’ Those are the kinds of nitty gritty decisions communities are having to make. And, of course, there are also ones about less glamorous things than ski areas, like storm surge and droughts and pest outbreaks, which are increasing because winters are less cold.”

a whimsical illustration of a polar bear“I emphasize local, but the locals are always part of a bigger system. It goes local, regional, state, national—and then global.”

As people around the world face the impacts of climate change, their decisions and reactions will always be influenced by culture, Strauss says. For an Inuit family living a traditional lifestyle in Alaska, melting ice may limit the animals they can hunt for subsistence, dramatically altering their daily lives. In Greenland, on the other hand, some people have welcomed rising temperatures, which make agriculture possible in places it has not been seen since the Medieval Warm Period. But one broader pattern has become evident: the worst impacts will be felt by those who are already struggling: “In this country, and everywhere else, environmental problems tend to weigh more heavily on poor people,” she says.

The importance of what has become known as “environmental justice” lies at the heart of a new, wide-ranging project Strauss is beginning with several colleagues at WPI. They are thinking about how infrastructure in the Worcester area—the built environment as well as food, water, energy, and transportation systems—will have to evolve to deal with climate change, and to accommodate continued efforts to mitigate it, such as a shift to electric cars.

“I emphasize local, but the locals are always part of a bigger system,” Strauss says. “It goes local, regional, state, national—and then global.”

Unique local efforts to adapt to a changing planet were part of what drew Strauss and Carrick Eggleston, her collaborator and husband, to Auroville, a utopian community in South India envisioned as a “universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics, and all nationalities.” As Fulbright-Nehru professors at Pondicherry University in 2012–13, they were able to participate in one of the longest-running renewable energy projects in the world; Auroville put up its first wind turbine in the late 1960s.

Eggleston, professor and head of WPI’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, researches renewable energy and novel materials, with a particular focus on ways to use solar energy to displace fossil fuels. But he is also interested more generally in what he describes as “the feedback loops between human systems and earth systems.” These are the ways human activity can act as a sort of geologic force that changes the climate and the environment and, in turn, forces us to change the way we live. Auroville strives to have a lighter impact; Eggleston calls its approach “a real eye-opener.”

an illustration of a section of the Earth with fire, cactus plants, and two tall wind turbines“These are the ways human activity can act as a sort of geologic force that changes the climate and the environment and, in turn, forces us to change the way we live”

In rural India, he explains, the electric grid is often unreliable, and Auroville’s power used to be off for more than half of each day. Power intermittency is a problem to solve in the United States, as solar and wind power become more prevalent. In addition, it is something more communities may soon face as climate change brings with it more severe storms. But Auroville has already figured out creative solutions—solutions that also put it in a good position to embrace renewable energy.

“In Auroville, pretty much every single little business and household had a battery storage system and inverters to run the lights and things when the power was off,” he says. “That means they already had everything they need except the solar panels if they want to go solar—and these days the cost of solar panels is minimal, so solar is now going up everywhere.”

Even a family that lives in a one-room home could have a solar panel the size of a sheet of paper to run a single light that allows them to read and study in the evening. “It can have a huge impact on education, or on how people make a living,” he says. “These days, with more reliable and plentiful power, they can power their kettles and hot water heaters with electricity, where they used to use propane.”

The WPI team was also impressed by the community’s eager uptake of new technology that turns food waste into methane fuel for cooking. Increasingly common in India, these anaerobic digesters are just beginning to be used in Europe and the United States, Eggleston says, noting, “Sometimes it’s places like India that are way ahead in adapting to change, and we should recognize that useful ideas and technologies flow in both directions between the West and places like India.”

Decisions About Water

Environmental justice is also at the heart of Jeanine Denu Dudle’s research. An associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, she works on water quality issues, which are increasing as climate change alters weather patterns, often in surprising ways.

“Imagine a flooded river,” Dudle says. “It may be running brown, like the Mississippi when it floods. Obviously, that’s not something you’re going to want to be drinking, because it’s full of sediments. But the same problem happens if we’re in a drought condition. When pollutants that we normally put into the environment are not diluted by rainfall, you can still have contaminated waters.”

More severe floods and droughts will require better water treatment technology. But that’s more expensive, and it may be out of reach for many communities. “When you’re talking about drinking water, water for cooking, water for sanitation, this needs to be available to everyone at an affordable price every single day of the year,” she says.

an illustration of a women in a green shirt and yellow baseball cap holding a flask filled with blue water“You may take a strictly medical view and say, ‘This particular source is safe because it’s not going to make you sick,’ but you’ll still find that not everybody in the community makes that choice.”

To that end, Dudle and her undergraduate and graduate students have worked on projects in Costa Rica, Ghana, and other countries to improve testing for pollutants and prevent transmission of waterborne pathogens using alternative disinfection methods, which can kill microbes without creating potentially harmful chemical byproducts. As in the work in which Strauss and Eggleston are engaged, Dudle has found that culture plays a major role in how people experience and confront environmental problems.

“We often look at the reasons why people chose certain water sources, whether a hand pump or a local stream or river or some sort of reservoir,” she says. “You may take a strictly medical view and say, ‘This particular source is safe because it’s not going to make you sick,’ but you’ll still find that not everybody in the community makes that choice.”

Instead, price, proximity, perception of aesthetic qualities, or cultural beliefs may weigh more heavily on people’s decisions—and engineers trying to solve a community’s water problems must take those into account. “It all ties into how you devise solutions to meet people’s needs, where their needs may be different. You can’t just tell people, ‘Well, I’m the engineer, here’s the solution.’”

At a global level, it’s also important for all of us to understand just how broad the impacts of climate change are—they go far beyond rising temperatures and melting ice caps.

“I would say the primary reason people don’t think about our water sources when it comes to climate change is, generally, a lot of people don’t think about their water sources, period,” she says. “You expect to wake up in the morning and turn on the faucet and have water to brush your teeth and make a cup of coffee and cook your breakfast and take a shower and wash your clothes. So it can come as a shock to some people to learn about all of the technology and effort and planning, on a local and regional and countrywide basis, that goes into that. And the changes that are coming make that harder and harder.”

From Complacency to Action

Perhaps the biggest challenge in tackling climate change is overturning the complacency that has made it difficult to take meaningful action. But WPI professors have found that the younger generation is often much more realistic, and many are eager to build careers around finding solutions. This fall, the faculty will welcome the first class of students in a new master’s program in Community Climate Adaptation (see sidebar below). Meanwhile, undergraduates are already exploring the ways in which they can tackle the problems of climate change, both in their own communities and abroad.

“I think WPI has a really great opportunity here, because of the new graduate program and the existing global programs, to lead the development of a workforce around this,” says Seth Tuler, associate professor of integrative and global studies, whose background is in environmental and sustainability studies. His research involves working with municipalities to prepare for coastal flooding and extreme heat, and he and his colleagues have developed a facilitated dialogue process that helps communities think about risk and making decisions about specific, practical interventions.

“Let’s say you’re building a new wastewater treatment plant, for example, and the lifetime of a wastewater treatment plant is on the order of 100 years,” he says. “You have to really think, ‘What’s the world going to be like in 30, 40, 50 years?’” Will it be regularly flooded because of sea level rise and extreme precipitation events? These practical challenges are not something that anyone can avoid, he notes, even those who may be less inclined to accept the science of climate change for political reasons. “Among planners and people who have some responsibilities at the local or regional levels,” he says, “I think that question is pretty much settled. Some talk of ‘rising waters,’ like a mayor in North Carolina, so they don’t have to say ‘climate change’ or that human activity is responsible, but they are planning for it.”

an illustration of fire burning a stand of pine trees while a bird flies overhead“Let’s say you’re building a new wastewater treatment plant, for example, and the lifetime of a wastewater treatment plant is on the order of 100 years. You have to really think, ‘What’s the world going to be like in 30, 40, 50 years?’”

Currently serving as co-director of WPI’s Boston Project Center, Tuler spent 2011 to 2018 as co-director of the Bangkok Project Center and has advised Major Qualifying Projects (MQPs) and Interactive Qualifying Projects (IQPs) related to climate change and resilience in several countries, including Israel and Ecuador. Among the students he has worked with is Jodi Kurilla ’21, whose IQP last year involved creating a sustainable transportation planning tool for the Israeli city of Eilat. She is now designing a public green space that will replace a parking lot in Worcester’s Main South neighborhood. She says she has given much thought to the urban heat island effect, in which human activities and the built environment contribute to increased temperatures.

“If you’re in downtown Worcester and you don’t have adequate housing, summers are hell,” she says. More privileged city residents might not realize how increased heat affects their neighbors—which shows how important it is for designers, urban planners, and engineers to talk with people about their experience of climate change. “Climate change is so specific to every community,” she says. “It’s not one size fits all. My answer is working with communities and workshopping solutions.”

Hannah Schulz ’21 (featured in this issue’s Insider) agrees. A double-major in civil engineering and in environmental and sustainability studies, she is completing a two-part MQP that began with mapping potential sea level rise in Boston, with an eye toward giving planners a tool for shoring up the built environment. The second part of her project is designing flood protection for Condor Street in East Boston, which is already seeing high tides fill its streets.

“Boston will definitely look a lot different,” Schulz says. “There’s an eerie element—when does it get to the point where we’ll have to retreat?”

As demoralizing as adapting to climate change might feel sometimes, Schulz and her fellow young engineers are also hopeful. They grew up hearing dire warnings about the future from scientists and environmentalists; now, they are getting a chance to help.

“My generation is a lot more geared toward believing in climate change, and we’ll still have to work on mitigation,” Schulz says. “But now it’s about where can you have the most impact? As an individual, I can buy an electric car, compost, make these changes. But as an engineer—that is where I really have power.”


Community Climate Adaptation Master’s Degree

In response to a global grand challenge, WPI recently introduced a new interdisciplinary master’s degree program called Community Climate Adaptation (CCA), which is among the programs within WPI’s new Global School. Offered jointly by the Department of Integrative and Global Studies (DIGS) and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), the program gives students the hands-on training and broad perspective they will need to work with communities around the world as they adapt to the impacts of a changing climate.

“Just as the field of public health emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to address problems of epidemic infectious disease, we now need to train a workforce that understands how to help communities adapt to the impacts of a changing climate and move forward in sustainable ways,” says  Strauss, a DIGS professor, who co-directs the program with Dudle, a CEE professor.

Listen to Sarah Strauss and Jeanine Dudle discuss the Community Climate Adaptation master’s program on the America Adapts podcast.

Students in the program gain expertise in engineering, social science, and the physical and biological sciences and learn to apply it to understanding the complex network between resources, environment, climate, and people in a community or region. By drawing on these different areas of expertise, students and community partners are better equipped to assess and find solutions appropriate to local contexts. In fact, while some of the degree work is completed in the classroom, a significant portion of the program happens in the field, as all students will be required to complete a Graduate Qualifying Project at a community site.

The program will help fill a growing worldwide need for professionals who approach climate change adaptation from a comprehensive global perspective. As professionals in a rapidly expanding field, graduates will bring their diverse perspectives and experiences (technical and nontechnical) to bear on complex techno-social systems.

Navigating the environmental, cultural, policy, and built environment constraints imposed by the reality of climate change, they will seek robust and comprehensive responses to problems as varied as water resource and water quality impacts; loss of land and economic assets; actual and projected problems of infrastructure inadequacy; differential health and social impacts; and extreme weather events—work that requires coordination with multiple agencies; compliance with local, state, and federal policy decisions; and attending to local preferences along with social, cultural, and economic constraints.

—Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Hannah Schulz ’21

Hannah Schulz ’21

Hannah Schulz ’21 hopes to use her WPI education to help find a solution to climate change.

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