photo of breaking ice

The United States Global Change Research Program released the Fifth National Climate Assessment – or NCA5 – Nov. 14, assessing current and future risks posed by climate change.

Published every four years, it’s a landmark report under any circumstances, but this edition – with ASCE members among the chapter authors and data informed by the recent ASCE-NOAA collaboration – is particularly important for civil engineers.

The report includes an interactive atlas to illustrate the data and the climate impacts around the country. 

ASCE began collaborating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration two years ago, focused on helping shape NOAA’s climate research for maximum benefit in developing and updating ASCE standards and manuals of practice.

“It’s incredibly important that we have a seat at the table – and not on the menu – to be able to deliver what we have in terms of raw data for the health and safety of people around the world,” said ASCE Past President Maria C. Lehman.

NOAA is among the 14 federal agencies that comprise the U.S. Global Change Research Program and will continue to work with ASCE as it develops its national precipitation frequency standard Atlas15 for publication in 2027.

And the collaboration was on full display at the ASCE INSPIRE Conference, Nov. 17, in Arlington, Virginia, with Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator Richard W. Spinrad delivering a keynote address along with a panel of civil engineers and climate scientists discussing NCA5.

Kris May, CEO and principal of climate adaptation and engineering for the Pathways Climate Institute in San Francisco, authored the coasts chapter of NCA5, participated in the ASCE INSPIRE panel, and recently talked to Civil Engineering Source about where this collaboration is going and why it’s so important.

Civil Engineering Source: So, how are you feeling this week having all this work finally made public and being here today on this stage sharing with the engineering community?

Kris May: I personally am feeling amazing. I feel like it’s been one of the best weeks of my life. I also worked on NCA4, which did not have an official White House rollout or any fanfare.

The reception that this report has received from this [Biden] administration and from Dr. Spinrad, it’s just such a good feeling.

Source: Are you optimistic that it is work that will make a tangible difference in the industry?

May: One of the great things about being able to talk about NCA5 with civil engineers is that civil engineers design so much of the infrastructure we depend on. So being able to get the message out on the climate impacts and the severity that’s coming, it really gives me hope.

I’ve talked to so many people here at the ASCE INSPIRE Conference who are motivated for climate adaptation and nature-based solutions.

And we need adaptation to be at a much faster and larger scale.

Source: What would you like to see happen in the next 18 months in terms of response to the report or implementation?

May: The implementation is the most important part – people uptaking this information, using the atlas and embedding this information in their adaptation and implementation plans.

For every dollar we spend on mitigation, we spend 10 cents on adaptation. We need to continue the work on mitigation, but we need to increase the spending on adaptation. We’re locked into a certain amount of climate change, so no matter how much we mitigate, we still need to adapt. With climate change impact accelerating, adaptation is very important.

Hopefully this moves the dial on that. I’m really hoping to see more work toward implementing adaptation projects.

Source: Can you talk about the value in the collaboration between ASCE and NOAA?

May: The partnership between ASCE and NOAA is critical, particularly when it comes to ATLAS 15. That is one of the biggest data gaps we have. Designers on the ground need to know how extreme precipitation is changing with a warming climate. And we can’t get that on a national scale without a product like ATLAS 15.

I worked on a regional study that helped provide this information for the Bay Area, but we need it for the entire country.
And this is a partnership that’s going to allow ASCE members to see the ATLAS 15 products when they go into peer review, before they’re available to the public. 

I think this partnership is really exciting.

Source: What’s the main advantage in that, having civil engineers give input along the way?

May: We’re implementing projects all around the country without this information right now. There are places where we might not be making good investments, we might be undersizing infrastructure and not planning correctly.

So even if the final ATLAS 15 products aren’t out, if we’re doing the peer review, we can start using that information as an experimental product – we can use it to inform design and help inform making better decisions.

Some projects I know of around the country are multibillion-dollar investments, and when they are not using adequate future precipitation information, that scares me.

Source: It’s a lot of money, and it’s a long time these projects need to last.

May: If we are designing infrastructure with historical precipitation information, that’s terrifying. And in some areas of the country, ATLAS 14 is decades out of date.

I think this update of ATLAS 15 might be the most important update we need for ASCE.

And I’m a coastal engineer. I focus on sea-level rise, coastal processes, and wave hazards. But it’s the lack of future condition precipitation information that keeps me up at night. So that should say something.

Climate change is impacting every single person’s life in one way or another.