Feature Story | 27-Sep-2022

Crafting climate solutions on a local scale

DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne scientists help communities, businesses, prepare for climate impacts that vary from region to region.

While climate change is a global issue, we see — and read about — its local impact every day. Global warming is bringing extreme weather events like hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and wildfires to our communities, cities, states and in some cases — our front door.

Even on a smaller scale, preparing for climate impacts is an enormous task. For example, how does a power company protect its infrastructure from extreme temperature swings? How does a community prepare for the frequency and intensity of extreme flooding? In the rare case that climate projection data is accessible on a regional level, translating that information into real-world climate solutions is a huge challenge.

“Our society depends on infrastructure, which impacts everything from cell phone and Internet service to getting electricity and clean water in our homes. How we build infrastructure now will impact climate resilience for generations to come.” — Thomas Wall, Argonne’s program lead for Engineering & Applied Resilience

As the climate battle becomes more urgent, more regional entities are seeking help in building climate resiliency — the ability to prepare for, recover from, and adapt to climate-related impacts.

To that end, scientists and engineers at the Center for Climate Resilience and Decision Science (CCRDS) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory are working with local, state, tribal, territorial and federal governments as well as private industry to assess climate-related risks and develop customized climate resiliency solutions. Established in 2021, the CCRDS is an extension of Argonne’s more than 30 years of pioneering research and breakthrough innovations in enhancing the security and resilience of U.S. infrastructure in the face of natural and manmade disasters.

In its first year, CCRDS successfully partnered with organizations ranging from telecommunications giant AT&T to public utilities including the New York Power Authority (NYPA) and ComEd. CCRDS scientists are helping local governments and businesses understand highly complex issues to prepare for climate impacts that can vary from region to region and even neighborhood to neighborhood.

“Useful data on climate change is sparse. And it is hard for decision-makers to make sense of the various climate data sets available and meaningfully apply them to develop effective solutions,” said Kyle Burke Pfeiffer, CCRDS director. ​“And the data that is out there often isn’t aligned very well with tactical decisions that organizations need to make. There is a big gap there and we provide the translational piece. We turn climate-based data into actionable solutions.”

Collaborating with Argonne’s Environmental Sciences division, CCRDS scientists and engineers use state-of-the-art climate and infrastructure system modeling techniques and a powerful supercomputer to develop immediate, actionable plans to increase resilience to infrastructure across all sectors: energy, water, wastewater, telecommunications and transportation systems. The supercomputer is part of the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science user facility.

Creating hyperlocal climate data

Resilient infrastructure is designed to anticipate and withstand risk, minimize vulnerability and maximize useful life, both in the short- and long-term.

“Our society depends on infrastructure, which impacts everything from cell phone and Internet service to getting electricity and clean water in our homes,” said Thomas Wall, Argonne’s program lead for Engineering & Applied Resilience. ​“How we build infrastructure now will impact climate resilience for generations to come.”

Argonne works with partners to create customized resiliency plans using data-based climate and infrastructure modeling. Climate modeling is a computer simulation of the Earth’s climate system that can be used to recreate past climate conditions for validation purposes or predict future climate scenarios to better understand potential impacts.

Because most climate models are built on a global scale, Argonne scientists use ​“dynamic downscaling,” to obtain high-resolution climate information from global models. Wall compares the process to increasing the number of pixels in an image to get a clearer picture.

“We use global climate models and downscale data to the local level to make it actionable,” said Wall. ​“Think of a checkerboard where each square is 100 kilometers (km) by 100 km. A lot can happen in a space that large. It’s hard to make climate-based decisions on a local level. At Argonne, we take that square and shrink it down to a regional or even neighborhood scale. By running regional climate models, we can project a plausible future for how climate will unfold at a very local scale. Our current model can project future climate at a 12-km grid scale across the U.S., and our next model will go down to 4-km scale.”

Argonne scientists use this hyperlocal climate data to develop infrastructure models. Scientists then begin testing vulnerabilities that help build resilient infrastructure designs. ​“Modeling allows us to test how future climate scenarios will impact the infrastructure in specific scenarios,” Wall said.

Tailoring climate resiliency solutions

In its first year, the CCRDS has built a successful track record of creating customized climate resiliency solutions. ​“It’s a process,” Pfeiffer said. ​“There is no one-size-fits all solution to climate resilience.”

In 2021, Argonne partnered with the NYPA, the largest state public power entity in the U.S., to assess how climate change could impact its ability to generate, transmit and deliver electricity. Argonne is using high-resolution climate and infrastructure models to provide NYPA with the best possible climate projections to predict impact to their infrastructure and protect assets and business.

CCRDS continues to collaborate with AT&T on its climate analysis tool that combines predictive modeling and visualization for vulnerable locations. AT&T is using the tool, which can project climate impact through mid-century, to better anticipate the potential impacts of extreme weather on its network infrastructure and business operations. The pilot project originally targeted southeastern states but has expanded to the rest of the country.

Argonne recently partnered with ComEd on the Climate Risk and Adaptation Study to examine the impact of changing weather due to climate change, including sustained heat and flooding risk, on the design and performance of the power grid in the Chicago area.

While scientists are developing the tools and solutions, it’s up to local governments and businesses to put the plans in action. ​“We provide information about what the climate might look decades down the line so they can be proactive about designing and managing infrastructure and making better-informed decisions to protect people, assets and the environment,” Pfeiffer says. ​“We are saying, ​‘Let’s start working on becoming resilient over time.’”

Along with having the highest resolution, dynamically downscaled climate data available in North America, Argonne’s depth of expertise in every area of climate resilience fills a unique niche in climate research. ​“It all comes back to having actionable climate data and information. That is what we do best,” Wall said. ​“Argonne has a range of capabilities that no one else has brought together as comprehensively. We are a dedicated team of climate scientists, engineers, urban planners and social scientists all working together to deliver actionable outcomes.”

CCRDS is expanding partnerships in the U.S. and abroad. Building on Argonne’s leadership role in climate resilience, CCRDS is planning a series of seminars with industry and community partners on improving resilience in the face of climate change. 

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.

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