Workshop to target vital role of technology in addressing local impacts of climate change

(Nov. 10, 2020) – This year witnessed historic wildfires that burned throughout the west and an Atlantic hurricane season that spilled into the Greek alphabet to name all the storms. The frequency of extreme weather events indicates to many scientists and planners that the impacts of climate change are here today and only getting more pronounced, especially for a coastal region like Tampa Bay.

“There is a range of issues such as potentially greater tidal surges from intensification of storms and sea-level rise that will cause different impacts and vulnerabilities to different communities across our region,” said CJ Reynolds, director of resiliency & engagement at the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.

For the sixth year, USF’s St. Petersburg campus Initiative on Coastal Adaptation and Resilience (iCAR) is bringing together scientists, policymakers and the local community to focus on preparing and becoming more resilient to present and future climatic changes.

The focus of iCAR has shifted over the years from highlighting the problems to figuring out solutions. This year’s workshop, which takes place virtually on November 12-13, will drill down on how technology can better investigate climatic trends, enhance communication with those impacted and develop the much-needed solutions to foster adaptation and resilience.

“From the discussions and work that came out of our previous workshops, focusing on technology seemed like the most logical extension when it comes to adapting to climate change in Tampa Bay – both in terms of further understanding the problem and solving it,” said Barnali Dixon, executive director of iCAR and professor of geography at the USF St. Petersburg campus.

Current examples of technologies that are being utilized to address the many facets of climate change include climate models that predict and plan for future impacts, social media used for disaster preparation and response, and data sensors and tools that track sea-level rise, flooding and local weather information.

“With this tremendous amount of data that we have accumulated in the last 10-15 years, we are working towards developing an understanding of what things might look like in Tampa Bay and how bad things could get with climatic changes 20 years, 30 years and 50 years from now,” said Reynolds. “For example, we are developing models that better map and predict future changes and trying to understand how future sea-level rise will impact different kinds of infrastructure.”

Some of these technologies and the information that flows from them rely on input from local residents. A case in point is the Community Resiliency Information System (CRIS) developed by iCAR, an interactive platform that allows citizens from across St. Petersburg to track and monitor the impacts of climate change in their neighborhoods.

Residents can input data into the system related to issues such as flooding and power outages, which can then be used by policy makers and neighborhood leaders to make policy decisions or how best to allocate resources. The data, for example, will allow emergency managers to identify areas with concentrations of people who need transportation assistance or are reliant on power for medical needs.

“We recognize technology can be used as a tool and help with democratic participation and resilience building,” said Rebecca Johns’, iCAR’s director of community outreach and education and associate professor of geography on USF’s St. Petersburg campus. “We also recognize that it has social equity limitations.”

Though technology is an essential part of any solution for responding to climate change, the benefits of technology are not universal. Certain marginalized communities may not be able to acquire or access tools that could enhance their resilience in the face of environmental change, a topic that will be a large focus of the workshop.

Dixon explained that the workshop will purposefully focus on technologies that are already found on existing devices or platforms that many people readily access, such as smart phones and social media.

“We are using existing technologies to develop these new interfaces and platforms that will help us all better understand and adapt to the coming changes. What is needed now is connecting with local leaders who can organize their communities in knowing about, accessing and providing data to these resources so they become useful,” said Dixon.

The annual workshop is expected to draw more than 160 participants this year, from such organizations as NASA, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Due to the virtual nature of the event, iCAR will be able to host international speakers from places as far as Turkey and Australia to hear about technologies that are enhancing climate resiliency and global lessons learned.

“Moving the workshop virtually will actually provide us an enormous opportunity to increase the scope and reach of the audience as well as speakers who can provide valuable information to us in Pinellas County,” said Johns. “Bringing in international speakers now isn’t much of a challenge. It also substantially reduces our carbon footprint. Because of those benefits, we may consider hosting the workshop virtually in the future.”

Speakers who couldn’t have made an in-person workshop will be able to pre-record talks, and allow anyone to watch the recorded conference after on the iCAR website.

The two-day workshop is hosted by iCAR, the University of South Florida, Gamma Theta Upsilon, the University Climate Change Coalition and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.