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AAAS ‘How We Respond’ Report Captures Resourcefulness of U.S. Communities

Facing Climate Change Impacts, Communities Devise Locally Tailored Responses

An Oregon shellfish hatchery successfully monitors seawater to rejuvenate oyster larvae, reviving oyster populations and restoring a Pacific Coast industry. | IMPACT MEDIA LAB/AAAS

Communities from Arizona to Montana and Massachusetts to California are recognizing the urgency to take steps to limit the impact of climate change. A two-year project by the American Association for the Advancement of Science spotlights examples of 18 innovative solutions communities are putting in place to blunt shifts in Earth’s natural systems.

Kansas farmers, for instance, have cut back on water use to preserve groundwater resources in the nation’s increasingly arid Southern Great Plains region.

An avid Texas churchgoer established an auditing company to improve energy efficiency at some 500 churches, freeing money for charitable endeavors.

Wisconsin’s Dane County has been capturing methane gas from its largest landfill, converting it into renewable transportation fuel, and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

Rising death rates of oyster larvae at a northern Oregon shellfish hatchery led to a regional network of seawater monitoring tools able to measure acidity levels and restore oyster populations, salvaging a Netarts Bay and upper Pacific Coast industry.

Threatened by storm surge from perilous hurricanes moving up the Atlantic seaboard, residents of Georgia’s historic city of Savannah are installing inexpensive, yet effective, sea-level monitors that aim, within a year or two, to alert the public to rising coastal sea levels and support a future emergency response system.

These five stories are a sampling of the 18 documented in the comprehensive “How We Respond” project that explores why communities need to act, use science-informed planning and decision-making, and draw from the value of collaboration. The project includes a report and multimedia, and it makes available a host of resources, including research sources such as the 2018 National Climate Assessment and other authoritative studies available on the report’s website.

The report, which was released on 16 September, follows AAAS’s 2014 “What We Know” report that presented well-established evidence concluding that “human-caused climate change is happening,” sending sea levels rising and setting off more frequent and intense weather events, such as heat waves, excessive rainfall, and wildfires.

Communities are devoting time and effort to instituting methodologies to both curb varied impacts of climate change and lower greenhouse gas emissions. The report describes partnerships being forged among scientists, residents, and local and state governments to leverage scientific knowledge, local expertise, and ingenuity to adapt to and mitigate dramatic climate shifts.

Local activities highlighted in the report present a range of innovative tactics to minimize the risks of climate change, including alleviating dangers to human health and to the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and residents in neighborhoods that lack the resources needed to update infrastructure to stave off the forces of climate change.

“We specifically wanted to show how communities across the United States are experiencing different impacts of climate change and are responding in different ways,” said Emily Therese Cloyd, director of AAAS’s Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology and a leader of the “How We Respond” project, during a 17 September Facebook Live chat featuring two scientists and a community leader involved in Savannah’s Smart Sea Level Sensors initiative. “Another part of this project is to showcase that there are different ways communities might choose to respond and that all those responses are useful and help us make progress.”

Some communities, for instance, are devising responses that also preserve economic stability. Consider the Kansas farmers facing depleting groundwater levels that endanger the agricultural industry at the heart of the region’s economic livelihood.

Likewise, the efforts by the Oregon hatcheries to curb economic losses due to oyster population declines connected shellfish farmers to scientists able to pinpoint ocean acidification as the factor crippling oyster production levels. The finding helped identify new oyster farming practices. Hatcheries are now aligning the filling of hatchery tanks to times when seawater chemistry is most compatible to oyster hatchlings and the growth of their shells.

Cooperating across sectors is vital, according to the “How We Respond” report. Key to success, said Cloyd, is “working together, building relationships, opening a dialogue between communities and scientists, and co-creating those responses, learning from one another to find responses that work best for the community.”

The story of Savannah’s work is rich with multifaceted approaches. The Smart Sea Level Sensor team connected scientists with city planners and public schools, engaging a cross section of residents in the development and placement of sensors around the city and the greater Chatham County coastal area.

The sensors are now beginning to produce local sea-level data. Going forward, long-term flooding patterns are expected to be identified and modeled. As more sensors are installed, additional localized data will lead to the development of the public alert system and help guide future city development and infrastructure projects.

The Smart Sea Level Sensor program was initiated and co-created by two Georgia Institute of Technology professors—Russell Clark, a senior research scientist in the School of Computer Science, and Kim Cobb, an oceanographer and professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences.

Nick Deffley, the sustainability director of Savannah, reached out to Dawud Shabaka, associate director of Savannah’s Harambee House, Inc., a community-based education and training organization dedicated to helping the city’s underserved communities, to involve the organization in the sensor program.

Community participants are pleased “to collect data in their area and analyze it for use in pushing for public policy changes,” said Shabaka, who participated in the Facebook Live chat. He noted that the benefits to Harambee House participants extend beyond educational advantages to the pleasure of being active participants in the project. Harambee House participants, Shabaka noted, are involved in data collection, have access to the online data, and are learning the basics of the data analysis. The project contrasts with other initiatives introduced to the community, he said. “People and companies and so on swoop in and say, ‘This is what would be best for you’ and then leave. This is not the way this is proceeding,” said Shabaka. “Georgia Tech, the city of Savannah, they’re working with us.”

Beyond engaging residents across communities, local schools are also playing a role, along with city and state officials, scientists, and nonprofit groups. High school engineering students are building and testing a fleet of sensors, made from easily accessible parts. Administrators have developed a curriculum around construction of the sensors that is expected to become a model
for other locations along the East Coast that have expressed interest in the program.

Georgia Tech students enrolled in computer design courses also are involved, designing the publicly accessible computer platform for displaying the gathered data and, separately, working on the development of a smart phone app to make the data portable.

“This approach has been very successful,” Cobb said. “The students are happy to be working on projects that address meaningful, real-world problems, including local climate change issues.”

Cobb envisions the project’s framework and the accompanying online Smart Sea Level Sensors
platform to be adaptable to a variety of other applications, such as monitoring local air and water quality as well as tracking local shifts in air temperature. “This list goes on and on, and the potential benefits that can be read from a public health perspective,” she said. “That’s where this project is squarely aimed for the residents of Savannah.”

While Clark struck a note of caution in citing the multiple activities that the ongoing project still needs to accomplish before any expansion can be envisioned, he pointed to the project’s lasting and most visible reward: “The key benefit for us has been how motivating and inspiring it is in fact to engage the community at this level, and the feedback we get.”

A version of this article was published in AAAS News & Notes in the Oct. 26, 2019 issue of Science.

[Associated image: Historic Savannah residents build and install effective sea-level monitors soon to alert the public to rising coastal sea levels and support future emergency response system. | Impact Media Lab/AAAS]



Anne Q. Hoy

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