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The partnership forged between ASCE and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration two years ago continues to bear fruit.

The latest result is a report published in July – ASCE-NOAA Workshops on Leveraging Earth System Science and Modeling to Inform Civil Engineering Design – detailing the organizations’ collaborative workshops in the fall of 2022.

The heart of the work lies in helping shape NOAA climate research for maximum benefit in developing and updating ASCE standards and manuals of practice.

“Using natural infrastructure is a strong focus of NOAA and other federal agencies, through new and past investments, because it is a cost-effective way to proactively protect our nation’s communities,” said NOAA Deputy Administrator Jainey Bavishi during a keynote address at the 2023 EWRI World Environmental and Water Resources Congress in Henderson, Nevada.

“And investing in natural infrastructure alongside resilient built infrastructure … allows our communities to thrive from an ecological and economic standpoint, as our jobs and businesses are dependent on a healthy environment. … Everything we do under this partnership will reap broader benefits for additional partners, stakeholders and decision-makers, as we get smarter on how to translate our climate science into climate services that are equitable in their accessibility and usability.”

The ASCE-NOAA Task Force is chaired by ASCE Distinguished Member and director of the University of Maryland Center for Technology and Systems Management Bilal M. Ayyub, chair of the ASCE Committee on Adaptation to a Changing Climate Dan Walker, and Ben D’Angelo, deputy director of the NOAA Climate Program Office. 

Ayyub recently talked with Civil Engineering Source about the new report and how ASCE’s partnership with NOAA continues to shape climate-resilient infrastructure in major ways.

Civil Engineering Source: Broadly speaking, why is this kind of collaboration so essential?

Bilal Ayyub: Our building codes, which rely heavily on ASCE standards, use information – particularly related to loads and environmental variables – that is historical in nature. And this worked fine for a long time. But now with the changing climate, we can’t do that. Future conditions cannot be represented fully by historical information. So we have to rely on projected climate information.

NOAA is a reliable climate information source. The NOAA scientists and researchers have been building underlying climate models for decades, and they’ve been verified and validated. So ASCE needs such climate information for resilient and sustainable infrastructure, and NOAA needs to have impactful products at the very end. These are part of their respective strategic plan and strategic goals.

So it’s a win-win for ASCE and NOAA.

Source: Can you outline how you approached these workshops?

Ayyub: What we did in preparation for these workshops is what we called a practice-to-practice development process. The attendees were handpicked to make sure we had diverse perspectives. We wanted to make sure the discussion was focused on ASCE’s standards and manuals of practice.

And to do that, we thought we should be inspired by the needs that are stated in the current practices. So we started reviewing the ASCE standards satisfying those needs and gaps, followed by working with the NOAA researchers and scientists to identify specifically what data we need to feed back into the standards and manuals of practice of ASCE.

The practice-to-practice development process is really inspired by product development, like iPhones and so on, where people do a user-to-user development cycle, examining the needs of the user to make sure at the very end the product is designed to meet those needs.

And it worked very well. We ended up identifying four items – temperature, high wind, precipitation, and coastal storms – as key climate-affected hazards.

Source: Were there any surprises for you? Things that came out of the workshop discussions that you maybe didn’t expect?

Ayyub: In terms of surprises, I don’t think we had many. Maybe one item – the temperature group wanted to include ice and permafrost that affect cold regions.

As background: when we design in cold regions, we consider the soil properties to contain frozen water. Water affects soil strength tremendously, whether or not it’s in cold regions. The minute you add water, the properties are different. So always, water is a factor in all of this. In cold regions, if temperature starts to go up, the soil properties start to change, and that will affect the foundation systems. We could have some foundations that settle and tracks could become misaligned for railroads, and things of this kind. So that’s a major concern. This topic was added to the report.

We had been aware of it. The Committee on Adaptation to a Changing Climate interacted with the ASCE Cold Regions Engineering Division, so we were aware of it. But the temperature group wanted to bring that as part of the coverage in the workshops.

Source: So much of this work is about tangible progress and specific work. Can you update us on any things from this partnership that are already happening?

Ayyub: There are a few updates beyond the workshop.

While we were planning for the workshop and the ASCE-NOAA Climate Summit, NOAA was planning their funding in terms of what research they should do in the current and future fiscal years. They want impactful products, and ASCE will give them the way to have big impacts on building codes.

As a result, they were planning for a program – MAPP: Modeling, Analysis, Predictions, and Projections. And we affected that program tremendously. Big elements of that program were inspired by discussions with ASCE. The ASCE-NOAA Task Force is involved in one of those projects to make sure that we will influence their products toward meeting the needs of civil engineering practitioners. So this is one impact.

Another is climate services. The whole concept nowadays is being led by the National Science and Technology Council, such as the 2023 Federal Framework and Action Plan for Climate Services, and they have many agencies involved – OSTP, NOAA, FEMA, and others. In this country, we have the National Weather Service, but we don’t have a National Climate Service. There are no projections that are done in a formal manner. So many federal agencies are trying to do this. So now there is an effort at the national level to coordinate all this toward having a global climate service. This goes beyond engineering.

The way they are considering structuring it is by user groups. They are looking at engineering, and particularly ASCE and what we are doing, as being one of the first user groups they’d like to address.

So we are influencing that in some ways – not necessarily by direct engagement, but I know they are looking at what we are producing very carefully, and they are using it as a basis to define climate services. So that’s another, in my opinion, significant impact.

The other one is NIST [National Institute of Standards and Technology]. NIST has started a series of workshops, and the focus is on some of the gaps which we and others have identified – tornadoes, ice, and flooding, and so on. And we have NIST researchers who are involved in our task force. So we’re influencing what NIST is doing by having NIST members on the ASCE-NOAA Task Force.

When I say influence – the influence is really both ways. It’s a very dynamic process. But our interaction with NOAA has really solidified that process.

Read the ASCE-NOAA Workshop report.