Life beside the Mississippi River always came with some uncertainty about the safety of homes, crops and city streets. Residents looked at flood maps based on historical data and chose their sites, built their levies and bridge footings and kept a wary eye on the river stages.
That’s not enough anymore, a team of Vanderbilt University engineers contend, because climate change is rendering the old ways obsolete. They’ve earned a number of research grants to study how commerce and flood control on inland waterways and the residents along them must change.
With U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding, Professor Mark Abkowitz, director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Environmental Management Studies, and Janey Camp, research associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, are deploying web-based tools to map West Tennessee flood vulnerabilities under future climate scenarios. The tools will have applications nationwide.
“What our parents called a 100-year flood could be today’s 50-year flood,” said Camp, who is also president of the Tennessee Society of Professional Engineers. “We’re going to use localized climate models to examine the impact of global warming and let governments and community planners know what infrastructure is vulnerable.”
Localized climate models take national level models, which typically include just a few cells per state, and reduce them to the county level or smaller so the results can be applicable to local decision-makers.
Nashville learned how devastating that underestimating weather impact could be in its 2010 flood. The Metro Transit Authority lost 75 vehicles that weren’t moved as waters rose. Water spilled over a levy protecting Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center and Opry Mills shopping center, destroying both.
Moving forward, the team is seeking funding to study how to be realistic about disaster mitigation in a nation now routinely affected by climate change.
“We’re often raising roadways, bridges and flood walls to try and hold back Mother Nature instead of asking, ‘What if that investment wasn’t put into infrastructure and instead was used to relocate people to somewhere safer?'” Camp said. “Being an engineer, I took an oath to protect people, but that’s not always going to be through infrastructure.”
Professor Craig Philip, who directs Vanderbilt’s Center for Transportation and Operational Resilience, is examining how inland waterway stakeholders – including freight shippers and carriers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – can communicate to ensure there are plans in place to maintain safe navigation even in the face of more frequent, more devastating events.
“Extreme events are becoming more common,” he said. “What we used to think was episodic has become chronic, and that affects everything.”