Federal grant aims to make Baltimore a laboratory for climate change adaptation and resilience

Published on: October 28, 2022 5:01 AM EDT|Updated on: October 28, 2022 10:46 AM EDT

For a five-year period starting this month, a team of scientists will study how atmospheric, climatic and environmental factors interact across Baltimore and develop adaptation strategies to make the city climate-change resilient, and equitable.

Tied to President Joe Biden’s goal of a net-zero carbon economy by 2050 and funded by a $66 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the program looks to develop “Urban Integrated Field Laboratories " in three U.S. cities — Baltimore, Chicago and Port Arthur-Beaumont, Texas — through collaborations among universities, government entities and nonprofit affiliates.

The Baltimore integrated lab, to be part of the 21st Century Cities Initiative at John Hopkins University and slated to receive $25 million, will involve scientists, academics, researchers, climate modeling specialists and other experts from Hopkins, Pennsylvania State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, among others.

The task before them is profound and groundbreaking: to better understand how cities such as Baltimore are affected by climate change, biogeochemical fluxes like greenhouse gas emissions, and air pollutants. Based on those factors, researchers would then simulate equity-based adaptation pathways for the city to consider. The project is expected to enable authorities to adopt equitable energy and climate solutions needed to reimagine cities that can withstand pressures from climate change, while prioritizing investments in historically underserved communities.

Baltimore was included in the program because of its multi-faceted, interlinked challenges such as urban sprawl, the large number of heat-trapping surfaces and structures, elevated risks from flood and heat, and disproportionate burdens of air and water pollution, similar to other mid-sized cities in the eastern and central United States.

“This is the most ambitious and interdisciplinary project I have ever joined,” said Kenneth Davis, a professor of atmospheric and climate science at Penn State. “I feel like my entire career has been preparing me for this project. The 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.”

Davis is leading the Penn State team that includes 21 faculty members from seven different colleges and 12 different departments and will receive $6.4 million.

Davis said a key strength that his team 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. “Predicting urban heat waves and air pollution 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,” Davis said. “That level of understanding is beyond the reach of today’s climate models. We aim to put it within reach.”

That measurement will come from scrambling precision measurement devices and instruments to various locations across Baltimore. They will measure air quality and temperature, the weather and greenhouse gas variations within the city.

Michael Bader, faculty director of Hopkins’ 21st Century Cities Initiative, said that the first order of business is to accurately measure the consequences of climate change on the city’s physical and social environments.

“So that’s going to include things like hydrologists understanding runoff, rising sea levels, which affect the [Chesapeake] Bay and the Baltimore Harbor, atmospheric scientists who are interested in measuring emissions and the consequences of different building materials that retain heat,” Bader said.

A sociologist by training, Bader is tasked with planning and leading a broad-based survey of city residents during the early part of the project. “We’re really trying to get an understanding from a representative group of Baltimore residents of what they need and desire for climate mitigation and adaptation strategies through representative sampling, and making sure that we have a diverse group of people providing input on this.”

Bader said that once the measurements and modeling part is done in the first two years or so, the project team is going to try to understand how the social, physical and atmospheric processes interact at the neighborhood level and across the city. “And from a social point of view, what I’m interested in is understanding how people understand climate change, how they understand the trade-offs in risk mitigation versus adaptation etc. This multidisciplinary collaboration is what is most exciting to me.”

Baltimore City officials said they are excited about what the project could mean for planning preparedness. Ava Richardson, sustainability director for the city’s Office of Sustainability, said the project will inform and guide the implementation of Baltimore’s climate action plan “in pursuit of the city’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2045.”

A number of projects will benefit, Richardson said, including disaster preparedness and planning efforts and the city’s community resiliency hubs program, which targets under-resourced neighborhoods so they have the resources to withstand natural disasters or emergencies.

Ben Zaitchik, a professor and climate scientist in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins, will work closely with community groups and focus on his specialty — urban heat islands — which are a persistent problem in Baltimore because high summertime temperatures and humidity, combined with heat-retaining sprawl, push temperatures to extremes.

The city’s Office of Sustainability has reported that urban heat islands have serious consequences for the elderly, children with asthma and people with pulmonary conditions, and the challenge to protect them from environmental stressors is only expected to grow.

Urban heat islands, said Zaitchik, “can kill older adults, cause more asthma-related visits to hospitals, affect school learning outcomes, and disproportionately affect the well-being of those communities who cannot afford air conditioning.”

Then there is flooding from extreme precipitation events, water supply challenges from drought, pollution in the air and waterways, which, Zaitchik said, compound the racial inequities feeding urban poverty and crime. And there’s no way to address such inequities without working closely with community groups.

“There’s no point in building a state-of-the-art system of measurement and modeling unless you’ve foregrounded the community and the city’s needs,” he said.

But right now, Zaitchik said, “we don’t have the science to do what we’re proposing. So, we need to build these modeling systems to have the science to support that kind of decision support tool.”

How, he asked, do we make those investments in the face of such significant environmental uncertainties and competing priorities? How do we properly understand urban climate, water, ecosystems, flooding and pollution to determine “how effective interventions might be at scale, or how they’d react.”

“We’re going to adapt to climate change one way or the other and the question is, can we really do a democratic anticipatory adaptation? And that’s the game here,” Zaitchik said. “We want to make it the most meaningful urban environmental monitoring system in the world. If we can demonstrate that by the end of the five years, then we have succeeded.”

Aman Azhar is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who covers environmental justice for Inside Climate News with a focus on the Baltimore-Maryland area.

This story is published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.