27 September 2012

Climate in a teacup

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Research scaling down climate change prediction down to city level could help prevent dire consequences of natural disasters

Making planning decisions about cities today means keeping an eye on climate change predictions.  More flash floods are expected, for example. Thanks to a research project called SUDPLAN, planners can now navigate the future via a web-based interface. It projects climate scenario models down to street level, akin to modeling climate change in a teacup. 
“You will be able to see things in 3-D,” Lars Gidhagen tells youris.com. He is the coordinator of this EU funded project with the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI), in Norrköping. “If you are looking at flooding on a street, you can look how it extends in relation to surrounding buildings.” Four pilot cities are testing the tool: Wuppertal, Germany, for storm water floods, Stockholm, Sweden, and Prague, Czech Republic, for air quality and Linz, Austria, for water sewer systems.

“Wuppertal has severe problems with flooding, with floods flowing like rivers down the streets. They can use this simulation tool to see the measures taken to change the city’s topography, perhaps building small-scale barriers on streets, and lifting pavements to prevent water entering houses” Gidhagen explains. The tool will be improved by adding in local historical data.

Handling the huge quantities of environmental data was a major challenge for the IT partners in the project. The scaling down from regional to street level requires lots of local high-resolution data for environmental parameters such as for temperature, rainfall, air pollutants and water run-off.

David Dodman of the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, UK, warns that a large spoonful of uncertainty is in the brew.  “When you move from global climate models to regional models to more local projections, there is inherently a great deal of uncertainty,” he tells youris.com. “We don’t know what the future emissions scenarios are going to be, and we don’t know how these scenarios are going to interact with the atmosphere. As you move to a more local scale those uncertainties become greater,” he adds.

“The challenge now is how you simulate different sources of data and how you do a reality check on it before you use them in the model,” comments Nigel Wright, water modelling expert at the University of Leeds, UK. Once you have the data, you can take measures to boost your resilience. For example, “you might look at having car parks in basements, and you move your car when there is a flood warning.  The basement floods and you use the car park again when it subsides,” Wright says.

Yet, concrete measures for climate change prevention are few and far between. “At this moment the most advanced cities in Europe are investigating their vulnerability to climate change, and apart from a few exceptions adaptation measures are not widely applied yet,” says Peter Bosch, project manager in climate change mitigation and adaptation  at the Dutch research organization TNO, based in Utrecht. “From our research in the Netherlands, in the Climate Proof Cities project, it appears that urban vulnerability will increase under various climate scenarios,” he adds, “To integrate adaptation measures in urban restructuring and renovation projects or greenfield developments now, will be more efficient than adapting later.”

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