Connecting Climate Science to City Planning

Category: Uncategorized

By Andrew Gase

In the coming weeks, TEX will feature a series of blogs from student volunteers who assisted at AGU’s Fall Meeting in December 2015. Each volunteer was asked to find community science projects in either oral or poster sessions and describe how the project aligns with the TEX mission and values. 

Bergen Harbor, Norway, commonly experiences atmospheric inversions that trap smog and result in detrimental air-quality (Image source).

Among science circles there is often talk of public outreach and the broader impacts of scientific studies. However, many scientists will acknowledge a lack of essential community involvement. The Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) is part of an AGU initiative to better connect Earth and space science to community priorities around climate change, natural hazards and natural resources. TEX seeks to solve locally pertinent scientific questions by combining the expertise of regional and scientific leaders. Community partners propose a problem and are paired with credible scientists. The end goal is a solution that advances community priorities and produces relevant scientific findings.

At the annual AGU fall meeting, I was searching for abstracts that feature science affecting everyday citizens. In the public affairs posters session “Climate Adaptation, Mitigation, and Resilience Tool-kits for Cities,” I glided through discussions of urban heat islands, economic analysis of climate adaptation, and history guides of flooding in the New York City area. Local climate will certainly affect growing seasons for urban gardeners, or whether I wear a jacket on the way to the office. Climate adaptability will motivate  regional policies to address climate change. And local severe weather event histories reveal how human modification of landscapes change the severity of weather events. All had the common goal of addressing climate questions in urban environments, but one abstract caught my attention for its commitment to solving problems that impact end-users (it’s even in the title!).

I spoke with Stephen Outten from the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center, and co-author of Impact Assessments and Projections in Microclimates: Working with End-Users. In two case studies brought forth by local decision makers, Stephen and his colleague, Tobias Wolf, applied local meteorological modeling to the seaside town of Bergen, Norway. In their first case study at the Hardanger Bridge, Stephen worked closely with construction engineers to assess the safety of the bridge during high wind events. Typically, such assessments use the last fifty years of observed wind speed data to determine construction strength and structural insurance. Stephen decided to improve upon this by applying future climate projections. He found climate models predict an increase in intensity of extreme wind events, suggesting that common practices to evaluate infrastructure safety are not fit to consider local climate variability.

The second case, led by Tobias Wolf addressed immediate problems affecting Bergen’s air quality. Atmospheric inversions, a phenomenon where cool air is trapped beneath warm air at low altitudes, prevent the escape of atmospheric pollutants and can persist for days. The result is smoggy skies and air that is difficult to breathe. Any pedestrian or cyclist in atmospheric inversion prone cities can attest to the respiratory difficulties that accompany hazy days. While atmospheric inversions cannot be prevented, Bergen residents and the Bergen Harbor authority wanted to know the relative impacts of pollution from automobiles and large ships that pass through a nearby strait and anchor in the harbor. Limiting ship or car emissions during inversion events could reduce the impact on air quality. Using temperature and wind simulations, Wolf found inversion are associated with winds that typically funnel ship-emissions from the city, but pool the emissions from cars. He suggested that automobile emissions have a greater impact on Bergen’s residents and that efforts should be made to stop this problem at the source. Moving forward, the team will begin working with end-users to communicate their results and hopefully provide relief to the lungs of Bergen residents. I hope this next step isn’t too difficult.

– Andrew Gase is a masters student in the Department of Geosciences at Boise State University, Idaho