Penn State shares $25M DOE grant to study climate change impacts and adaptation

September 19, 2022

By Kimberly Brue

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Penn State News. Bruce Logan, Evan Pugh University Professor and Kappe Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering who also is affiliated with mechanical engineering and chemical engineering, was featured.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State was named a collaborating institution in a $66 million U.S. Department of Energy Urban Integrated Field Laboratories (Urban IFL) Program designed to study the impacts of climate change on American cities. The program will study the impacts of climate change in three major U.S. cities — Baltimore, Chicago and Austin — and involves more than 20 institutions nationwide. Penn State, along with eight other organizations, will support the Baltimore project, which is being led by Johns Hopkins University.  

The principal investigator for the Penn State $6.4 million portion of the project is Kenneth Davis, professor of atmospheric and climate science. The Penn State team includes 21 faculty members from seven different colleges and 12 different departments, including Bruce Logan, Evan Pugh University Professor and Kappe Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering who also is affiliated with mechanical engineering and chemical engineering.

“This is the most ambitious and interdisciplinary project I have ever joined,” said Davis. “I feel like my entire career has been preparing me for this project. This goal of this project — making climate science work for cities — is critically important. It will be a tremendous challenge, but it is a challenge that we need to address.”  

As stated in the DOE announcement, the goal of the program is to improve climate change predictions for cities, including working with cities to help them create strategies for adapting to and mitigating these changes. The urban cities involved in the studies include diverse demographic characteristics; a range of climate-induced pressures on people and infrastructures; and varied geographic settings. Understanding how climate change will impact urban systems and infrastructure is key to building resilient cities powered by clean energy, helping achieve President Joe Biden’s goal of a net-zero carbon economy by 2050.  

Davis said a key area of strength that Penn State brings to the project is measurement and modeling of the urban atmospheric boundary layer — the portion of the atmosphere closest to the Earth’s surface, which is crucial to the climate and air quality experienced on the planet.

“People live in the atmospheric boundary layer," said Davis. "Predicting urban heat waves and air pollution episodes in the city requires that we understand how this lower layer of the atmosphere is modified by the city itself, and how it changes from neighborhood to neighborhood. That level of understanding is beyond the reach of today’s climate models. We aim to put it within the reach.” 

Additionally, Penn State researchers’ expertise in the interplay among buildings, climate and human health represents a major contribution to the research effort.  

“Resilient, safe and efficient buildings are key to adapting to the hazards of climate change, and to minimizing our emissions of air pollution and greenhouse gases,” Davis said. 

According to Logan, the IFL program will bring advancements and knowledge regarding the real-time impact of climate change in American communities, while leveraging researchers’ strengths in environmental science and engineering.

“Increasing our knowledge of the impact of climate and weather events on urban systems will provide key information about potential solutions and needed resiliency in these areas,” Logan said.

The Penn State team is composed of faculty from the colleges of Medicine, Arts and Architecture, Earth and Mineral Sciences, Agricultural Sciences, and Engineering; the School of Public Policy; and the School of Science, Engineering, and Technology at Penn State Harrisburg. 

“This award brings significant opportunity for Penn State research to showcase and leverage our strong, disciplinary and interdisciplinary capabilities in engineering, architecture, and the environment, and to contribute our expertise to tackling global challenges,” said Lora Weiss, senior vice president for Research, “bringing us closer to solutions for environmental crises, especially in regions where burdens of air and water pollution create disparities in the quality of living.”  

The DOE project will create Urban IFL that will expand the understanding of climate and weather events and their impact on these urban systems that include diverse demographic characteristics; a range of climate-induced pressures on people and infrastructures; and varied geographic settings.  

“Understanding the risks of climate change and extreme weather means understanding the direct and indirect effects on people, their homes, their businesses and the communities they live in,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. “The Urban Integrated Field Labs will strengthen DOE leadership in climate modeling and drive scientific breakthroughs to inform the development of resilience technology that can protect America’s diverse communities.”   

According to Benjamin Zaitchik, professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, the Baltimore Social Environmental Collaborative (BSEC) is a people-centered, transdisciplinary IFL.  

“The BSEC begins with community priorities of human health and safety, affordable energy, transportation equity and others. It also includes clean waterways, decarbonization and functioning infrastructure,” Zaitchik said. “Our team committed early on to design observation networks and models that will deliver the climate science capable of supporting those priorities. The guiding objective of the BSEC process is to produce the urban climate science needed to inform community-guided ‘potential equitable pathways’ for climate action. In doing so, we address a number of fundamental urban science questions from across natural science and social science disciplines.” 

In addition to Penn State and Johns Hopkins University, the BSEC includes Morgan State University, University of Maryland Baltimore County, University of Virginia, Drexel University, City University of New York, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, National Renewable Energy Lab and Oak Ridge National Lab.  


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