Researchers Anticipate, Help Prevent National Security Consequences of Climate Crises

Originally published by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Using new data sets and computing systems, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are simulating how climate change will affect a nation’s safety and security. This research can help policy and decision makers at the federal, state, and local levels quickly identify risk factors and develop real-world mitigation strategies.

For more than two decades, ORNL scientists have modeled environmental factors, such as temperature and precipitation, and population distribution. Currently, researchers are studying how climate change affects population density, critical infrastructure, and security to better understand how extreme weather events affect physical safety and create a domino effect of economic repercussions and other national security challenges.

In some cases, rising temperatures that reduce agricultural opportunities can lead to mass migrations away from struggling communities. In other cases, violent hurricanes and winter storms can disrupt electrical grid operations, cutting off access to electricity and other utilities long after the initial climate threat has passed.

“We are interested in contextualizing the tangible consequences of phenomena such as sea level rise, temperature changes, and precipitation for humans,” said Carter Christopher, chief of ORNL’s Division of Human Dynamics in the Directorate of National Security Sciences. “Human security is a function of the security and resilience of a community, whether it is a rural county, a small town or a major city, locally or internationally.”

Researchers in the Directorate of National Security Sciences and across the lab study the relationship between climate change and national security from multiple perspectives—leading to important findings that decision-makers can use to strategize how best to protect people before they end up in dangerous situations.

Risk assessment and flexibility

Bandana Kar, who leads the ORNL Group for the Characterization of the Built Environment, or BEC, focuses on screening and Forecasting the risks and resilience of infrastructure systems and vital cities in the country. Using geoinformation science concepts and techniques including satellite remote sensing, geospatial modeling and data sets, and computational science, Carr’s team assesses and identifies risk factors present in communities and cities, as well as access to resources such as energy in those areas, which is critical The importance of resilience and disaster recovery.

Model output (ensemble model) trained on a near-real-time hydrological model and Earth observation results revealed which regions in Africa are most likely to experience severe flooding in 2020. Credit: NASA and Pacific Disaster Center

Because the country’s critical infrastructure systems are interconnected, seemingly unrelated concerns, such as rising freight costs and limited supplies of gasoline or other fuel sources, can affect supply chains and the communities that depend on them.

Access to geospatial datasets and pre-disaster awareness information allows emergency managers to plan evacuations or other mitigation measures as necessary. The BEC Group creates critical infrastructure data sets and develops models and algorithms designed for specific communities and scenarios to help predict climate impacts and prevent economic losses, as well as injuries and deaths.

The Global Flood Modeling and Warning Project provides insight into regions of Asia that may need to prepare for devastating floods in 2021, with risk levels ranging from advisory (yellow) to watch (orange) to warning (red). Credit: NASA and the Pacific Disaster Center

“We are looking at resilience from the physical, social, cultural and technological dimensions,” Carr said. “Assessing the physical conditions of infrastructure in the context of climatic conditions and socio-cultural factors allows us to study how these factors change and affect people under different scenarios in a given location.”

Carr is currently studying how water and weather events affect people and energy infrastructure over time. Together with her collaborators, she identifies potential vulnerabilities along the power supply chain, where unexpected outages during severe weather events can lead to power outages.

Carr is also part of the Global Flood Alert and Modeling Project, which is funded by the NASA Disaster Program. Using algorithms that combine hydrological models and remote sensing data sets, the project team predicts flood intensity and identifies regions around the world that have a high probability of experiencing flooding based on past weather events and typical precipitation levels.

This study generates flood intensity alerts that are published internationally for residents and policy makers through DisasterAWARE, a platform created by University of Hawaii researchers that has 2 million users and provides daily forecasts for more than 15 types of weather events.

As part of the Time Situation Awareness Tool for Integrated Oil and Natural Gas and Power Outage Recovery from Large-Scale Severe Weather Disturbances Projects funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Cyber ​​Security, Energy Security and Emergency Response, or CESER, Carr contributes to the development of models and simulations that help estimate time necessary to restore energy after an extreme weather event, as well as the duration of liquid fuel availability at gas stations on evacuation routes and throughout the supply chain. These projects contribute to the CESER environment for geo-energy information analysis.

Population modeling at an unprecedented scale

Scientists in the Human Geography Group at ORNL apply geographic data science and computational methods to better understand population distribution and dynamics around the world. Historical and current population trends based on demographic distributions and behavior related to human mobility during day and night hours provide a basis for communities at risk of facing environmental hazards.

“The Human Geography Group is uniquely positioned to engage with global human security through scalable population modeling and research to expose current and future inequalities and vulnerabilities across the human landscape,” said Marie Urban, group leader. “Our goal is to continue to lead population dynamics research, not only in support of the Department of Energy’s national security mission, but also to support the humanitarian community, policy makers, and stakeholders in developing a more sustainable future.”

ORNL’s LandScan population modeling program, funded by the National Geographic Intelligence Agency, relies on US Census data to provide a more detailed picture of residents in residential areas, office buildings, schools and other common commuter destinations. LandScan researchers develop algorithms to assess population movements based on daily timescales, as well as long-term migration patterns.

These algorithms model human activity, taking into account different social, cultural, economic and demographic factors around the world that influence where people are throughout the day. Various patterns throughout the landscape, particularly the changes that occur between day and night, are captured in LandScan to provide a better understanding of population distributions. Analysis of these measures helps researchers study how unwary residents at home, at work, in the classroom, and elsewhere in a city will respond to the sudden security threats posed by the rapid emergence of a climate disaster.

“LandScan is designed to help governments and scientists plan ahead and study the potential impacts of natural disasters — such as hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and landslides — and technological disasters, such as oil spills,” said Amy Rose, LandScan Program Manager. “For example, some of our federal users are integrating LandScan data sets with hurricane tracks and forecasts, as well as other critical infrastructure data, to provide policy makers with estimates of how a hurricane will affect residents and the community economy.”

The LandScan team also examines how rising sea levels and other phenomena are likely to alter city growth and coastal topology in the long term.

Building towards energy and environmental justice

Using the UrbanPop framework, researcher Joe Tucello develops high-resolution recreations of the social structure of census block groups of 600–3,000 people. This data can help energy and climate justice advocates identify neighborhoods and communities that may lack access to clean energy sources or be disproportionately affected by natural disasters and other national environmental and security consequences of climate change over time.

UrbanPop, which received funding through the ORNL Laboratory-Driven Research and Development Program and the Department of Energy’s National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory, uses sample survey responses provided by the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to estimate the composition of these groups. This data enables researchers to study the general demographics and behavioral trends of people in different geographic areas—information that can be used to assess group risk and preparedness for climate-related threats—while preserving the privacy of individual respondents.

“The goal is to create aggregated representations of what communities are like in terms of individual demographics and behaviour, providing insight into patterns of group activity,” Tucello said.

Research scientist Christa Brailsford focuses on human-environment interactions from another angle. It designs how the location and arrangement of buildings in 2050 will affect environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and wind speed around the world.

She is particularly interested in learning how these changes may affect daily life, especially for communities located in economically and physically disadvantaged areas that may be more vulnerable to flooding, air pollution and other environmental hazards.

“It’s important for us to keep in mind that the worst effects of all of these adverse climate impacts are likely to be felt by the already most vulnerable,” Brailsford said.

In addition to developing new integrated modeling frameworks, Brailsford is examining current population projections to determine the ecological footprint of major cities more than 30 years from now.

The expected influx of millions of new residents into cities around the world will have many consequences, including significant changes in the ‘microclimate’ of each location. These small but devastating phenomena can include heat waves and urban heat islands, which occur when cities endure higher temperatures than surrounding areas due to the proliferation of manufactured structures that absorb more heat than natural surfaces.

Brelsford’s research is supported by the Integrated MultiSector Modeling Project, which is funded by the MultiSector Dynamics Program District in the Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research.

Through these research efforts, Christopher, Carr, Urban, Rose, Tuchillo, Brailsford, and many others across ORNL aim to provide leaders at every level with the data and information they need to mitigate environmental threats and make informed national security decisions, both domestically and abroad.

UT-Battelle is operated by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit– Elizabeth Rosenthal

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