A Blueprint for Change: How Computer Models Will Help Communities Respond to Climate Change



While climate change may affect us all, there is no “one size fits all” approach to providing communities with solutions to lead healthier and more resilient lives. This is where the work of Community Research on Climate and Urban Science (CROCUS) comes in. CROCUS is a five-year, $25-million program carried out by a team of 17 organizations, and funded by DOE’s Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research. 

“Our goal is to develop tools that make sense of environmental measurements and support communities with informed decision-making,” said Rao Kotamarthi, CROCUS deputy project director and science director of the Center for Climate Resilience and Decision Science at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. 

Kotamarthi and his team of researchers sit on the modeling end of the project. They take environmental data–such as air quality, temperature, wind speed and direction, soil moisture and rain fall—and analyze it using the supercomputers at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science User Facility.  

Unlike a weather forecast that might project weather patterns for the next days or week, these sophisticated models can help scientists predict how climate will change over the next 10 to fifty years. The modeling team’s goal is to provide new insight on current and future urban climate challenges and solutions at the street, neighborhood and regional levels. 

From flooding to extreme heat to poor air quality, understanding what problems exist is the first step in this process. From there, scientists can look to find solutions. 

“We all know the importance of green infrastructure solutions — green roofs, solar panels, planting trees and using more porous surfaces. However, simply taking these elements and introducing them into communities without understanding their priorities won’t achieve climate resilience,” Kotamarthi said. “Instead, the work must begin by working alongside community residents and understanding how exactly they are impacted, and then designing targeted solutions.” 

Pointing to some of the more recent modeling work, CROCUS modeling lead Ashish Sharma studied the impact of planting trees. Sharma has a joint appointment at Argonne and is the climate and urban sustainability lead at Discovery Partners Institute of the University of Illinois System. 

“By utilizing sophisticated computer models and advanced algorithms like machine learning, we are able to determine where a tree should be planted in a specific area and what impact the tree would have on the temperature,” he said. “We can gauge how installing trees helps reduce the temperature for areas prone to extreme heat. The models also show the impact of pollution and how the physical, chemical, biological and geological processes and reactions related to urban vegetation impact urban environments,” said Sharma. 

This sophisticated modeling will be key to communities like Humboldt Park, where residents have identified extreme heat as a potential threat. The models will also be essential in helping communities understand whether their current efforts at climate resilience are working.  

“Using advanced computer models and measurements around the net-zero building already in place in this community, we plan to develop a comprehensive understanding of the various energy use, greenhouse emission impacts and the potential contribution of these types of structures for improving the community wellbeing,” Sharma explained.  

The models could also help communities explore other big questions around the future of urban planning, such as: 

  • Which building materials will lower temperature and reduce emissions?  
  • How will urban farming help change the microclimate and increase food stability?  
  • What is real impact of rooftop gardens? . 

“By combining measurements with models, we are able to decipher how each element contributes to or undermines community goals,” Sharma explained. 

Once the approaches are tested and validated, Kotamarthi and Sharma say these methods could be adapted to any city in the world. Users would specify the natural and built components present in their city (for example, tree coverage, concrete surfaces, solar roofs or green roofs), and use computer models  to determine what would work best in their area.  

Global cities will have the tools and information necessary to make their cities sustainable and resilient to climate change.