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USM receives National Science Foundation grant to prepare roads, bridges for changing climate

Portland, Maine, flooding

Threats from rising sea levels have garnered serious attention in New England recently. A more subtle, but potentially costly liability from climate changes could occur if New England roadways and bridges are not redesigned to withstand new conditions. Future summers that risk being hotter, rainfall that is more persistent, and flood levels from brooks to rivers that are much higher can take a toll on infrastructure over years.

A new National Science Foundation (NSF) grant led by researchers from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service and the University of New Hampshire hopes to jump start our ability to address these issues by bridging the knowledge gap between climate scientists, who understand where the Earth’s climate is headed in the future, and the civil engineers and transportation officials who design today’s roads and bridges. The four-year grant, through the NSF’s Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) – Research Coordination Networks (RCN) program, is for $750,000.

The grant supports creation of the Infrastructure and Climate Network, or ICNet, to accelerate the integration of climate science and engineering research for sustainable transportation infrastructure decisions the region must make. Focused on the northeast, the ICNet currently comprises more than 50 researchers representing more than 80 percent of the graduate degree-granting civil engineering departments in the region. Representatives from state departments of transportation and local government will also be involved.

ICNet is aimed at overcoming the traditional assumption that there is an automatic “pipeline” of scientific knowledge flowing to those who need it, says co-principal investigator Jack Kartez, professor of community planning and development at the USM Muskie School of Public Service. New to engineering groups like this is the inclusion of social scientists with planning and collaboration tools who will assist in creating new working relationships and lines of communication—both among different scientists and with those who manage long-term investments in roads and safety.

“This grant aims to fill a very big void in the field,” says UNH professor of civil engineering Jennifer Jacobs, co-principal investigator. Although road and bridge engineers recognize the importance of planning for a changing climate in their work, they lack the capability of readily using the relevant data from climate scientists. “The climate change community and the infrastructure engineers are not yet talking. They’re not at the same meetings, and they’re not in the same departments at universities,” Jacobs adds.

While road and bridge engineers do look to climate data to inform materials, design and construction practices, and longevity, data representing the changing climate has largely been missing from the process. “If climate is changing, using weather data from 20 years ago is not going to represent what the road will experience in the next 20 years,” says Jo Daniel, co-principal investigator and associate professor of civil engineering at UNH.

“We’re going to utilize a variety of social science techniques from the consensus-building field to deal with this very challenging problem of linking knowledge to action,” says Kartez. “That linking is now recognized as critical to using our knowledge more effectively in an uncertain and changing environment.” He is also one of a network of Maine-based scientists developing the NSF-sponsored Sustainability Solutions Initiative, which aims to better connect the emerging science with people’s needs.

Kartez and colleagues will also monitor and assess the collaborative process to derive lessons that could be translated to other regions and issues. The researchers anticipate that this New England-based collaborative could be replicated elsewhere.

“This uniquely positions us to take a lead in multiple areas that should be taking off on a national level,” Jacobs says.

In addition to Kartez, Jacobs, and Daniel, co-principal investigators are Katherine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center and associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University, and Paul Kirshen, research professor of civil engineering at UNH. Ellen Douglas, associate professor at UMass Boston, is also a member of the project team.