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Coast to Coast: U-M Leads New Project to Build Resilience to Compound Flooding Using Scenario Planning 

An innovative project will help communities in two regions of the U.S. become more resilient to catastrophic flooding.

An innovative project will help communities in the Great Lakes and Southeast coastal regions of the United States develop plans for more resilient infrastructure in the face of catastrophic flooding, with leadership from the University of Michigan (U-M) and the University of Georgia (UGA). Launched in October 2023, the project titled “Coast to Coast: Using Scenario Planning to Build Resilience to Compound Flooding in the Southeast and Great Lakes Regions” was awarded by NOAA’s Climate Adaptation Partnerships (CAP) program (formerly RISA).

In the fall, the Department of Commerce and NOAA announced $3.9 million in funding from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that would be awarded over four years to partnerships between existing NOAA CAP teams to foster collaborations across regions. The funding supports efforts to test, scale up, and transfer knowledge to build national adaptation capacity. This project is one of four funded under the competition specific to assessing tradeoffs and co-benefits for complex decision making in areas with inland flooding or coastal inundation. GLISA is leading the project as NOAA’s Great Lakes CAP/RISA team, housed at U-M.

According to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, the U.S. has sustained 371 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters since 1980, including 42 flooding events and 22 wildfires. These new funds will enable NOAA to help communities build adaptive capacity to coastal and inland flooding and wildfire risk across many U.S. regions.

The efforts will focus in the Great Lakes region and along the Atlantic Ocean coastline in Georgia. Principal Investigator Richard Rood secured the funding on behalf of GLISA at the U-M Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, and Georgia Sea Grant at UGA. 

“It’s exciting that some of that money from Congress is trickling down to climate research,” said Rood. 

Empowering Leaders to Protect Against Climate-Related Challenges

The funding aims to empower municipal planners, resource managers, business executives and policy leaders to use the best available science and local expertise to help communities address climate-related risks for resilient economic growth, under the Investing in America agenda by the Biden-Harris Administration. 

Rood will work collaboratively with Jeremy Bassis, who is a co-PI at U-M, as well as Mona Behl and Michelle Covi, who are co-PIs at UGA. The team will also work in partnership with GLISA staff housed at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability. While Rood’s focus is on scenario planning and proactively creating protections against threats caused by the changing coastlines, Bassis will lend expertise in the physical sciences of lake levels and sea level rise. 

“The strength of his approach is using the best available quantitative data in a qualitative way,” said Rood. 

“Most climate resiliency and climate adaptation work is focused on one problem,” said Rood. “We’re going to be addressing compound flooding, which is when lots of things go wrong at once, which can be really hard on communities. Consider a community that is facing a year with high lake levels, a lot of heavy rain, and a river that is rising at the same time the lake is rising — compounded by the risks that come with old infrastructure. Compound flooding may cause that aging infrastructure to fail.” 

The specific communities where the work will take place are being finalized, but the team hopes to use a scenario planning approach that was developed at U-M by GLISA and apply that approach in the areas of Greater Detroit and the South Atlantic coast in Georgia. The team will also adapt and amend the approach to engage directly with community-based organizations and residents to explore if and how including community participants leads to more equitable outcomes.

Addressing Compound Flooding Along Coastlines

So, what do the Great Lakes Region and the Georgia Coast have in common?

“What was interesting to us and our partners at UGA is that both of our regions face frontline flooding challenges, and we’re going to be working, in particular, with impacted communities,” said Rood.

He worked with his counterparts at UGA to design the innovative project, which will take place in several stages. Two students at U-M Climate and Space also assisted in conceptualizing the project, Michael Redmond and Olivia Doty. Both of them worked on the initial stages of the project through their work in the master’s degree program in Applied Climate, offered at the University of Michigan College of Engineering. 

“They were heavily involved in developing the idea for the project and contributing ideas to the proposal,” said Rood. “Student involvement in these climate issues is important, and we also budgeted for students to help with the project.”

The goal of the project is to build capacity for resilience to flooding and inundation across two different coastal environments, including the Great Lakes and the Southeast U.S. To accomplish this, the project team will conduct a comparative study that assesses a stakeholder engagement model across different community demographics and compound flooding environments. 

The objectives of the project are two-fold: 

  1. To implement scenario planning so that it can inform infrastructure and climate adaptation decisions to protect against compound flooding, and
  2. To advance the scenario planning approach to address its existing barriers and limitations. 

Developing Climate Scenarios for a Better Future 

The first phase of this work is now getting underway. Early in 2024, the project team is initiating conversations and building relationships with potential institutional partners in both the Great Lakes and Southeast regions. They will also soon convene a science advisory panel to gather expertise and localized scientific data to develop climate scenarios in compound flooding that account for lake level variability and sea level rise in the Great Lakes and the Southeast, respectively.

“So far, in our climate adaptation work, we have only engaged with practitioners, decision-makers, and the like,” said Rood. “This project is exciting, because we’re going to take the next step and engage members of the community in the process.” 

As the project gains momentum, the team will hold a series of three workshops across four years in each region to inspire people to make informed decisions on the flooding risks facing their communities. The first workshop will engage practitioners who play a role in deciding what actions to take to protect against climate change. The second workshop will engage community leaders and members of the community, listening to concerns, gathering priorities and experiences, and empowering people to influence decisions in their communities. The third workshop is still open-ended, but it could present an opportunity for the research team to bring these audiences together, uniting residents and community leaders in the struggle against climate-related flooding. 

“The piece that we’re bringing from Georgia Sea Grant to this project is – the community engagement expertise,” said Covi. 

She explained that the changing climate, flooding disasters, and coastal erosion have different implications for different types of communities, while both urban and rural communities can anticipate impacts, equitable solutions need to consider the challenges that populations with limited resources face.

Taking Action Based on Scientific Data

In the Coast to Coast resiliency project, researchers will evaluate impacts and implications in both the Great Lakes region and along the South Atlantic coast, to gain new understanding, data-driven solutions, and effective recommendations for those who work, live and play in those areas, as well as their local leaders and policymakers. 

By the project’s end, customized climate scenarios will be presented that can help practitioners and community leaders evaluate the pros and cons of different infrastructure options to mitigate and adapt to the flooding caused by our changing climate.  

GLISA was established in 2010 and is a collaboration between the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, The College of Menominee Nation, and the University of Wisconsin. GLISA is the NOAA CAP team for the Great Lakes region, working at the boundary between climate science and decision-makers to enhance Great Lakes communities’ capacity to understand, plan for, and respond to climate impacts now and in the future. GLISA’s team of physical and social scientists serves all eight U.S. states that border the Great Lakes and the province of Ontario, Canada, working to ultimately advance equitable climate adaptation in the Great Lakes region through applied research and engagement.

For more information, contact GLISA Co-Director Jenna Jorns or visit the project’s website.

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