Brown-led team to establish climate and health research hub for New England coast

The project, supported by the National Science Foundation, will focus on creating a set of tools and convening experts to address climate change related challenges faced by communities along the New England coast.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A new federal grant will enable a team of researchers led by a Brown University scientist to bring together experts and stakeholders in an effort to create a coastal resilience research hub aimed at addressing climate change related challenges faced by low-lying communities in New England.

The National Science Foundation grant is expected to total approximately $6 million over five years.

The team will include eight faculty members from Brown as well as 21 researchers from University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, University of New Hampshire, Gulf of Maine Research Institute and Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems. The group will be led by Emanuele Di Lorenzo, a professor in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown, and Sarah Lummis, a researcher at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and executive director of the new hub.

The team plans to initially work with four coastal communities in New England — one industrial port and one commercial fishing port in both Rhode Island and Maine — but eventually they hope to bring solutions from these pilot communities to the entire New England coast and beyond. The goal is to create a set of systems and establish a network of experts that members of these communities can turn to for help developing strategies to become more resilient to climate change, including tools for data collection and predicting rising water levels.

“The concept of the hub stems from the fact that in the past, a lot of coastal communities, sometimes in connection with the research institutions, have been addressing solution strategies for resilience on their own,” Di Lorenzo said. “This has led in general to a fragmented approach to coastal resilience where individual communities are trying to develop their own strategies. A hub can help communities share data, tools and human infrastructure to essentially accelerate the process, especially for places that wouldn’t necessarily have the expertise to be able to define what tools and strategies they need in the first place.”

The project will be known as 3CRS — Community-driven Coastal Climate Research and Solutions. The work will be part of NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program, which aims to strengthen states’ research competitiveness and fund workforce development initiatives.

The pilot communities the researchers will work with are the Port of Providence, the Port of Galilee in Narragansett, Rhode Island, as well as ports in Rockland and Bath, Maine. Each is part of a larger municipality and includes people and groups whose livelihood, property or business connect them with the coast.

The need for solutions is dire, the researchers say. According to some of the latest research on sea level rise, risks to waterfront areas — which already face disproportionate climate-related risks — are set to grow in coming years. For instance, by 2050 the region is likely to see between 1.1 and 1.8 feet of relative sea level rise and potentially 3 to 4.6 feet by 2100, inundating land and critical infrastructure. With these rising risks also comes a growing threat to human health, which the new grant also focuses on.

“Extreme weather events such as hurricanes, extreme precipitation and heat waves impact community members' health through many different mechanisms,” said Katelyn Moretti, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Brown and co-investigator on the 3CRS team. “Sometimes the relationship between climate change and our health is clear, but other times it is not as readily apparent. Coastal communities endure additional risks from sea level rise and coastal flooding that can result in a myriad of cascading secondary effects, like people being unable to find safe drinking water or people with chronic illness losing access to their home medications or electronic medical devices. Understanding these risks and others like them is paramount to the development of effective adaptation and implementation of solutions.”

The team first plans to delve into the unique challenges faced by the four waterfront communities and then work closely with community experts, stakeholders and decision-makers to come up with solutions or approaches that are scalable and transferable beyond the locations. The idea is to have the communities lead in terms of what they need, rather than scientists coming in and dictating it, the researchers say in the proposal.

Potential solutions outlined by the research team include building robust coastal observing systems, developing models for predicting coastal hazards, and creating detailed roadmaps and adaptation plans that other coastal communities can easily implement.

For instance, the project will include deployment of a novel tool called the New England-wide Coastal Hazards Analysis Modeling and Prediction System or NE-CHAMP, developed by Austin Becker, an associate professor at URI and a co-principal investigator on the grant. The tool can help coastal communities visualize and analyze the impacts of environmental hazards such as flooding, hurricanes, storm surges, and sea level rise onto their critical infrastructure such as generators, transformers and roads.

“By involving members of coastal communities in all stages of the project, the team hopes to increase awareness of rising sea level impacts on the health and property of vulnerable coastal communities throughout Rhode Island and Maine,” said Anabela Maria Resende da Maia, an associate professor at RIC and co-principal investigator on the 3CRS team. “Our hope is to empower local populations to enact change in their lifetime leading to better socioeconomic outcomes related to housing value and their own health.”

The effort from the 3CRS team also features a rigorous educational and mentoring component as part of the grant. For this, they plan to work with six early career researchers and assistant professors, five postdoctoral researchers across the partner institutions, four graduate students and a number of undergraduates. The team also plans to develop education modules for students in grades six to 12.

The eight faculty members from Brown include scientists affiliated with the Warren Alpert Medical School, the School of Public Health, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, the Data Science Institute, the Population Studies and Training Center, and the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences. Along with Di Lorenzo, they are Rachel Baker, Baylor Fox-Kemper, Karianne Bergen, Leslie Acton, Katelyn Moretti, Elizabeth Fussell and Luke Fairbanks.

Along with researchers from partner universities, the effort also includes nonprofit organization partners like the Center for Sea Rise Solutions led by Janelle Kellman.

Ten other teams were awarded grants as part of this latest round of EPSCoR funding.

“Investing in research infrastructure is a powerful catalyst for strengthening our nation's security, competitiveness, and fostering groundbreaking scientific advancements," said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “By addressing these critical challenges, and engaging with communities impacted by climate change, we have the potential to advance innovation and promote economic stability and recovery in EPSCoR jurisdictions and beyond.”

U.S. Senator Jack Reed, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee who brought Panchanathan to Rhode Island this spring to meet with faculty at Brown, URI, RIC and other research institutions, commended the almost 30 researchers from the region for coming together to work on this problem affecting coastal New England. "This is a promising project that can help decision-makers effectively strengthen resiliency in vulnerable coastal areas," Reed said in a joint press release announcing the grant with U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

“As we race to lead the planet to safety from climate change, we must address the urgent challenges facing coastal communities,” said Whitehouse, who created the National Coastal Resilience Fund to invest in resiliency efforts in Rhode Island and across the country. “This federal funding will allow Rhode Island’s world-class research institutions to collaborate on boosting resiliency in the Ocean State for generations.”