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McMaster research quantifies the climate emergency Civil engineering assistant professor Zoe Li works with simulation models to anticipate the future environmental impact of climate change

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Photo C/O Jin Lee, Dan Kim, and the Faculty of Engineering

By Wei Yan Wu, Contributor 

It is becoming increasingly important to plan and prepare for the future consequences that the climate emergency will bring to our planet. Zoe Li, a civil engineering assistant professor at McMaster University, has set out to tackle this need. 

As someone who works with scientific models, Li does not work in an experimental laboratory. Instead, she works with different simulation models to analyze the water  cycle. Through her research, Li is attempting to quantify the unpredictable by forecasting the likelihood of droughts and floods in certain regions. 

Li conducts a process known as climate impact analysis to assess the impact of climate change on water resources. Recently, her research has involved working with a Master’s student and two undergraduate students on an algorithm that will be able to collect weather and climate data from numerous climate centres around the world. This will help produce climate projections for specific regions and aid in informing preventive measures. 

For an area at risk of flooding, for example, there will be structural or non-structural measures; a structural measure would entail diversions to modify flood runoff, while a non-structural one would involve practices like flood proofing in order to decrease the damage susceptibility of certain floodplains. 

Through climate impact analysis, Li and her team aim to use advanced machinery and techniques to provide reliable evidence in support of methods of adapting to climate change. To accomplish this, they are working with colleagues in computer science.

While Li and her team are aware that running a physically-based climate model requires a great deal of time and resources, they are able to help meet their need for mass amounts of information by collecting output from various climate centres around the world. These include, among others, the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, the Danish Meteorological Institute, the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute and the Université du Québec à Montréal. 

Moving forward, Li intends to use projections, machinery and algorithms to generate a customized projection specifically for Ontario.

“I’ve always known that there’s a research gap. People have been developing global and regional climate models, but there’s nothing that’s reliable just for Ontario. Since I live in Ontario, I thought we should provide a more reliable climate projection for Ontario because this is a very important issue,” said Li.

Li has been contacted by another professor in the civil engineering department at McMaster, who, alongside one of his students, now uses Li’s results as foundation for their own model. Using information that attempts to measure future environmental phenomena, such as predicted temperatures, this professor and his student have been able to quantify the energy consumption of buildings.

Li states that her model can be applied to anything that is affected by a change in temperature and precipitation. She believes that it is necessary to have a projection of what the environment’s future will entail in order to fully analyze the possible impact of climate change. 

“We are trying to provide projections so that people will know what the precipitation is, what the temperature is. For example, for the design of buildings and bridges, they will need to know whether there will be gusts and what the wind speed is, things like that. That’s the input information we can provide,” said Li.

Climate impact analysis is only one part of Li’s research. 

“For the other half, we focus on how to quantify the uncertainties in different environmental systems so that we can better manage different kinds of environmental risks,” she added. 

Due to the fact that model inputs, parametres and structures come with their own uncertainties, Li currently has students working to address these issues by developing quantification methods that could provide more support for risk assessment and management. 

Through her research and by collaborating with different sectors at McMaster, Li demonstrates the potential benefits her work could bring to the community. She also has another project dedicated to analyzing wastewater treatment as she continues to work on environmental solutions for Ontario.

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