Penn State-led team to bolster communities impacted by climate change

Samantha Chavanic and Nathan Rufo
June 24, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In the last 50 years, rising global temperatures have led to noticeable weather pattern changes, particularly in low-lying coastal zones. In these areas, the global increases in air and water temperatures drive rising sea levels, supercharged storms with high winds, longer and more intense drought conditions and heavy rainfall and flooding surges. These weather disturbances impact communities around the world. Social, economic and political imbalances intensify these issues, placing vulnerable, low-income populations at even greater risk of infrastructure collapse and public health crises.

An international, Penn State-led consortium aims to improve infrastructure resiliency, along with sustainability and public health, in coastal areas most impacted by climate change. The $1.1 million project, supported through the Belmont Forum, focuses on low-income communities in select parts of Brazil, East Africa and North America.

Esther Obonyo, director of the Global Building Network, associate professor of engineering design and architectural engineering and the consortium lead, described the negative impacts tropical storms have on weak structures and the health of low-income communities in coastal areas.

“First, because of lateral loads from the high winds, inadequately connected building elements literally become flying missiles,” she said. “If the transition from the foundation to superstructure is not done properly, the top part of the building could float away with floodwater. Because low-income communities often have pre-existing water and sanitation challenges, flooding can compound the incidence of cholera and other diarrheal diseases. And after the storm, the residual ponds of stagnant water become maternity wards for diseases like malaria. Water damage inside homes due to the flooding could lead to mold, which may cause respiratory diseases or exacerbate some existing health problems.”

The consortium plans to leverage its knowledge and stakeholder connections to identify emerging trends in potential weather events and examine current state, national, international and aid agency policy practices.  

The team will gather building and natural features spatial data to develop geographic and socio-economic knowledge for at-risk areas. Researchers will also design and build a prototype of an affordable, disaster-resilient, low-income housing system using locally resourced sustainable materials.

Through machine learning and data analytics, the consortium will identify the optimal disaster-resilient urban housing design and planning policy packages that consider extreme weather scenarios associated with continued climate change between 2021-50.

Obonyo said though it is widely acknowledged that buildings that are designed, constructed and operated well can positively impact the well-being of a community, the health of a community is not always a deciding factor when selecting building materials, technologies and systems. The consortium aims to change that.  

“Some public health challenges can be attributed to design decisions concerning the use of building material, technologies and systems as well as their integration as a building system within a specific site and neighborhood,” she said. “Health risks directly related to these decisions can be mitigated by infusing evidence into the decisions being made by the design team — the architects, designers, engineers and construction managers. The required systemic shift calls for both top-down and bottom-up approaches and must be supported by local regulatory and policy frameworks. The partnerships that are being developed within our network are directed at developing collaborative research activities. These activities can trigger leap-frog innovation through encouraging the sharing of data and knowledge as communities adapt to the growing likelihood of concurrent exposure to multiple extreme-weather and public health disasters.”

Additional consortium members include: 

  • George Okeyo, lecturer in computer science at De Montfort University 

  • Daniel Olago, associate professor of geology at the University of Nairobi 

  • Sergio Francisco Santos, assistant professor and lecturer in structure of materials at São Paulo State University 

  • Holmer Savastano Jr, professor of biosystem engineering at the University of São Paulo 

  • Kristin Sznajder, assistant professor of public health sciences at Penn State 

  • Shem Oyoo Wandiga, professor of chemistry and acting director of the Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation at the University of Nairobi 

  • Wangari Wang’ombe Leonce, lecturer of economics at De Montfort University 

  • George Odipo, demographer and senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi 

  • Philip Omondi, climate information expert at the IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre

  • Halima Saado, head of research and learning at the Kenya Red Cross Society

The National Science Foundation, UK Research and Innovation and the São Paulo Research Foundation provided funding for this consortium through their partnership with the Belmont Forum.


(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 07, 2021