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Can Government Turn Up the Heat on Climate Change?

Cutting-edge tech could help governments manage the impact of a shifting environment.

Hantavirus, a rare but potentially fatal disease that can cause respiratory problems, is practically unheard of in Connecticut. As of January 2017, the U.S. government doesn’t know of anyone having contracted the virus in that state.

But in the future, Connecticut might have to get ready for hantavirus. That’s because as temperatures steadily creep upward in the decades to come — something virtually guaranteed to happen, due to an increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere — the habitat of the hispid cotton rat will expand. Today, the hantavirus-carrying rat is mostly found in the Southern U.S., venturing as far north as the Chesapeake Bay.

As temperatures rise, more of the U.S. will become hospitable to the rodent. Between 2070 and 2100, under a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenario that estimates a temperature rise of 3.4 degrees Celsius worldwide by the end of the century, the hispid cotton rat will likely have reached Connecticut.

“If you’re going to be in an area that’s going to see hantavirus … for the first time, you need to have that on your list of differential diagnoses,” said Este Geraghty, chief medical officer and health solutions director at Esri, the mapping software company. “It needs to occur to you that hantavirus could be a potential diagnosis.”

Government doesn’t typically plan to deal with a problem that lies so far in the future. Yet this is the nature of climate change: When it comes to questions of timing and magnitude, uncertainty reigns. Climate change has upended how we view the future. Consider the following predictions: Extreme weather will wreak more damage on people and property; low-lying cities will flood more often until some parts become permanently submerged and must be abandoned; habitats will change and spread diseases to new areas; drought will test the ability of humans to live in certain areas; and heat waves will stress infrastructure to its limits during the warmest months of the year. Perhaps most dramatically, people will migrate to new places en masse, whether for opportunity, comfort or survival.

All of this is very likely to happen, even if every country takes quick, dramatic steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because the atmosphere has already changed — the gases now inhabiting it will last for hundreds of years.

Even if we manage to slow down the rate of carbon dioxide emissions and reduce the severity of some climate-related issues, trouble is on its way. The world must either prepare for these changes or be caught off guard when they do happen. That’s where government is right now: dealing with today’s problems, with assurance that many of them will get worse as time goes on.

“Climate change is a challenge that intimately disrupts the lives of Americans across our country already. It’s a challenge we should all know beyond the graphs and news headlines, because it affects us all,” wrote Victoria Herrmann, president and managing director of the nonprofit Arctic Institute, in an email to Government Technology. “And looking beyond climate change mitigation, we all have a part to play in helping our country adapt to the effects of climate change we can no longer avoid.”

Tools of the Trade

Organizations across the country are developing tools that can help government start preparing for the impacts of climate change now:

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit: More than 400 online tools for a wide range of climate change-related issues, both specific and broad.
  • NOAA’s Weather and Climate Toolkit: Primarily contains visualization tools for various kinds of weather and climate data, including base maps, filtering and animation.
  • The Northwest Climate Toolbox: Developed by the University of Idaho’s Applied Climate Science Lab, this kit offers tools specifically related to agriculture, fire, water and climate data for the Pacific Northwest.
  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ public tools web page: So far, USACE has one tool for calculating sea-level rise and two more related to hydrology, but it’s developing more.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Climate Hubs tools: More than 50 tech tools, all tilting toward agricultural applications in some way, developed for specific regions of the U.S.
  • The Conservation Biology Institute’s Data Basin: A database containing data as well as tools to map, analyze and publish datasets.
  • The University of Massachusetts at Amherst and U.S. Geological Survey’s Spatial Hydro-Ecological Decision System: A series of specialized tools for examining stream ecosystems in 13 states and the District of Columbia in the Northeastern U.S., running from Virginia to Maine. Includes predictive models.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Change Adaptation Resource Center: An array of tools aimed at helping local governments plan for climate change and effectively communicate with constituents about decisions.
  • The startup Azavea’s Temperate software: Offers users personalized climate risk assessments as well as tools to put together adaptation plans. Includes internal collaboration functions, as well as access to plans from other cities. The software isn't free, but Azavea offers free access to its Climate API for models and scenarios.
Thanks go to the following for their help in locating these resouces: Constantine Samaras, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University; Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, fellow with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station; Toni Lyn Morelli, research ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Northeast Climate Science Center; and Kale Roberts, program officer for ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability USA.  
Fortunately for government, it has several decades to prepare before many of those climate change-related challenges will mount. And here’s the good news: There are already many technological tools available today to start preparing for and adapting to those changes (see sidebar).

A lot of the technological tools out there today have to do with planning: when things will happen or where they’ll happen or how they’ll happen. Some can be used to deal directly with the effects of climate change, but most of them have more to do with enhancing what government knows. For all that technology can do for government, knowledge just might be its most effective weapon against the challenges of the future.

Measuring the Rise of Seas

Scientists have done some extensive work modeling how much the sea level will rise around different parts of the U.S. coast, including specific locations in communities that will be most affected. Several tools can visualize this data. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has put together one that emphasizes rise over time, while the organization Climate Central has published different tools that focus more on location detail.

Utilities also have access to tools that plan for changing conditions. One example is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool (CREAT), which helps water utilities identify what challenges — rising sea levels, for example — they will face in the future due to climate change, and then come up with a response to them.

Tracking Fires

Steadily increasing temperatures will make it easier for fires to start in both urban and rural environments, and water scarcity will increase the chances those fires will grow out of control. But with technology, government is learning to better track, respond to and even predict fires.

In San Rafael, Calif., the city government has been using performance management software to follow the number and locations of fires related to homeless encampments — a problem because those fires can sometimes escape their bounds and spread.

In New Orleans, the city merged Census demographic data with building information and fire history to create block-by-block assessments of fire risk. Then it targeted smoke alarm outreach efforts to those areas.

There are also emerging efforts, like those coming out of the University of British Columbia, to monitor forests for wildfire risk using satellite imagery to assess moisture levels in plants. Finally, drones are helping firefighters manage those fires better. Equipped with cameras, drones can help crews on the ground get a quick aerial view of fires, while infrared cameras can help find hot spots.

Mapping the spread of disease

The hispid cotton rat problem is a perfect example of how climate change will affect health. But it’s not just hantavirus that the U.S. will have to worry about. Habitats will be changing everywhere, so a lot of states will start seeing diseases they haven’t had to worry about much in the past. Take the Zika virus, for example. When the virus, borne by specific species of mosquito, first broke out in the U.S., Esri rushed to provide tools for government to track the disease, predict where it might go next and fight its spread.

Interactive maps can also be used to do certain kinds of work quickly. Esri has tools that help coordinate mosquito control activities. For example, a map can show where employees with mosquito-spraying equipment are. Then managers can plot out reports of standing water or clouds of mosquitoes on the map and assign an area to an employee. Then they can plan what that employee will need.

“I might draw an area that, based on this report, I think needs to be sprayed. So, the computer calculates the acreage, and that translates into how much pesticide I need on my vehicle to handle this request,” Esri’s Geraghty said.

Digital maps can also be used to represent many layers of data, which can help cities monitor climate-related health problems. A map could show where a city has its worst problems with heat. Then it can show how many shade-providing trees are in that area, and how many cooling centers are within a certain walking distance. Finally, it can layer in the location of people vulnerable to heat-related medical issues, or it can show where there are lots of people working in jobs that require them to be outside during the hottest parts of the day.

Sensing Bigger Storms

One problem with climate change is that it has a tendency to concentrate rain into shorter, more intense downpours, which can mean flash flooding in cities, where most of the land tends to be capped off with concrete and asphalt. In Chicago, the Array of Things project led by Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago is demonstrating how networks of smart cameras, computers and sensors can help a city keep on top of the problem. The nodes that make up the Array can be fitted with rain gauges, which can report rainfall amounts in near-real time and give insights into how rain is falling differently across a city.

“It gives us much denser measurements across the city, so that those who are responding to the storm, whether it’s a power company or the city, can get a sense of where the rain’s falling and then look at where they should respond as a result,” said Charlie Catlett, a senior computer scientist at Argonne National Laboratory who is leading the project.

The nodes also include downward-facing cameras connected to computers that use artificial intelligence algorithms to crunch the footage and look for standing water, and they can send back that data in near-real time. If a city were to install enough of those cameras looking at drains or flood-prone areas, they would be able to send people out to clear storm drains or do other flood mitigation work.

A private company, One Concern, also offers software to help government respond to disasters, including extreme weather such as hurricanes. The company helps cities identify, among other things, where the most vulnerable populations to different problems are located. That gives public officials the ability to quickly figure out where they should direct resources during an emergency.

Gauging Stress on Infrastructure

Chicago’s Array of Things project also has microphones and accelerometers to detect vibrations. That means they can monitor infrastructure for signs of stress. By measuring temperatures and light intensity, they can also offer insights into the kinds of things that put stress on infrastructure, potentially giving government a better idea of what infrastructure might need maintenance the most.

Extreme weather can trigger an acute infrastructure problem by knocking out power to valuable assets, such as hospitals, shelters and government buildings. An increasingly popular solution to that problem is microgrids. By putting solar arrays on rooftops, installing batteries that store power, investing in efficient technology and using software to coordinate power usage, critical buildings can keep running with power even when the rest of a city goes dark.

Lauren Kinkade is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 15 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.