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Professors research resilient farmlands, housing in coastal areas and cities

The 2015 Paris Agreement set the goal of limiting global warming to below two, but preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

However, a report published by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) shows that while countries are taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will not be enough to limit a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. 

While countries meet this month to negotiate and discuss the next steps relating to the climate change crisis at COP27, the 27th Conference of Parties hosted by the UNFCCC in Egypt, professors at Notre Dame are also working on climate change initiatives.

Galla Professor of Biological Sciences and director of the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative Jennifer Tank’s research focuses on how agriculture impacts stream and freshwater ecosystems and how nutrients and carbon cycle in streams. 

Nutrient runoff from farm fields can be harmful to freshwater ecosystems because the runoff raises the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, causing algal blooms and low oxygen dead zones, Tank says. This process, known as eutrophication, results in excess algae and plant matter which eventually decompose, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide which contribute to greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. 

Tank’s research involves working with farmers in the Midwest to implement conservation practices to mitigate and minimize the impact that farming has on freshwater. 

While her research documents ecological outcomes of conservation practices like cover crops and restoring floodplains, Tank said there is another piece to conservation associated with changing farmers’ behaviors and trying to incentivize them to adopt conservation practices. 

Tank further discussed how many farmers are concerned about environmental impacts but their primary concern is their agricultural yield.  

When negotiating with farmers, Tank said she leads with the “unpredictability and extreme events rather than climate change” because farmers know that the weather every year is uncertain, and this negatively impacts their productivity. 

Cover crops are beneficial for the environment, but they are also beneficial for farmers because they increase levels of carbon in soils which increases yields.

“The approach we take is to meet in the area of shared values, rather than trying to push an agenda,” Tank said. 

Co-authors Debra Javeline, associate professor of political science, and Tracy Kijewski-Correa, professor of engineering and global affairs, are also working on research looking at how to incentivize people to make more environmentally-conscious decisions. Their research relates to homeowners living in coastal areas and aims to inform insurers, leaders and policymakers about incentives to motivate homeowners to protect themselves.

“We are working with communities all over the world to try to understand how they are adapting to the acute effects of climate change as manifested in increased storm intensity, sea level rise and other factors in coastal areas,” Correa said. “Not only are we seeing more frequent disasters but every variety of disaster, from massive wildfires to flooding all across the United States and massive hurricanes in the southeast and Atlantic coasts, are driven by climate change.

These disasters result in losses of life and losses of hundreds of billions of dollars a year used to rebuild communities decimated after natural disasters. 

In an email, Javeline said that when a major event happens “we should not reflexively start paying the billions of dollars it costs to rebuild infrastructure in hazardous coastal locations.”

Instead, she suggested that people should consider where “infrastructure dollars are best spent, given climate change and the need to invest wisely in more sustainable locations.”

Correa recommends that policymakers incentivize families to make investments in their homes through a market-based approach that makes it attractive for people to invest in safe homes. Some of these policies include offering discounts on insurance premiums and real estate markets rewarding behaviors by raising the value of homes that adopt protective measures against flooding, strong winds and sea level rise. 

“This resilience benefits the homeowners, who don’t want to be stuck with the financial and emotional toll of losses, and it benefits the insurers who would otherwise have to pay for those losses,” Javeline said via email. 

While Correa and Javeline’s research focuses on coastal areas, professor of engineering and geosciences Harindra Joseph Fernando is investigating how climate change affects urban areas. 

Fernando is working with the Community Research on Climate and Urban Science (CROCUS) laboratory as a co-principal investigator to look at how climate change affects urban areas to build more resilient cities. The project is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

“Our research is focused on developing a quantitative understanding of the symbiosis between cities and their natural surroundings within the holistic climate system” to predict how climate variability will affect people living in urban areas, Fernando said via email. 

Fernando explained that the research will use computer simulations to understand how engineered elements like buildings, roads, pavements and industrial areas will affect the local environment. These models will guide mitigation strategies for environmental degradation.

The impacts of climate change influence a variety of different research topics, ranging from building resilient farmlands to incentivizing homeowners living in coastal areas to make investments in safer housing, to designing cities that can withstand climate change. 

There are many faculty whose work is informed by or impacted by climate change, and it is an interdisciplinary area of study.

“The ways we can think about climate change impacts as well as what we do next are so diverse,” Tank said.

Contact Caroline Collins at ccolli23@nd.edu