Insights

Downscaled Climate Projections in the United States

AEC industry takeaways from a national assessment.

The demand for climate projections has been growing worldwide to support all industries in the development of climate adaptation strategies. Climate change is disrupting historical weather patterns at an unprecedented level; past weather data are no longer reliable in predicting future climate conditions. As a research-driven firm, HGA is working to advance expertise in climate adaption planning to apply new best practices across our project work.

At the forefront of climate adaptation research are climate projection data: global climate projection models (known as General Circulation Models or GCMs) downscaled to regional or local scales.

 

Results from national assessment. Tiers are associated with the number of applications of climate projections pursued by state-funded or supported downscaling projects (maximum of 6). Application types are shown in the previous graphic.

Catalyzed by the MN Climate Resiliency Collaborative, a public-private community of climate adaptation practitioners, HGA and the Minnesota Department of Health collaborated to conduct a national assessment of existing downscaled projection data sets in the U.S. The assessment included a comprehensive literature review, interviews with climate modelers, research involved with existing downscaled data sets, and a national survey distributed to state climatologists.

Here are three major takeaways for architects, engineers, planners, and end users:

1. Access to climate projection data that is usable to the AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) industry is limited, due to a usability gap [1] or need for closer communication between climate modelers and end-users of climate models. Although a large amount of downscaled data is publicly available, dense data sets are not formatted in alignment with data widely used by the industry, and models may be missing climate variables needed by engineers and architects.

2. Data from a single climate projection model is insufficient and could be misleading, as models illustrate a range of possible future conditions. Yet access to an ensemble (>10 GCMs) is not readily available for AEC industry use. Leading climate projection tools used by the building sector today are limited in their scope of one or two downscaled model projections. A closer relationship is needed between climate modelers and the industry to fill this gap.

3. Clients may not have data available to them, leaving consultants responsible for identifying sources of climate projection data to inform design decisions. Nearly half of U.S. states (21) use no climate projection data in any capacity, based on the results of the national assessment. Our research found that organizations driving the development and application of downscaled datasets were primarily public health departments and, in states where climate science is not prioritized by government leadership, Fish and Wildlife agencies. Universities have also acted as key partners to develop and store downscaled datasets, as well as provide technical support. Universities are also often home to Regional Integrated Science Assessment groups (RISAs) at the interface of science and society. In the absence of state leadership, RISAs provide knowledge, collaboration, and expertise to bridge the gap between data producers and data end-users.

The building sector has largely taken a reactive approach to resiliency planning. Resiliency strategies such as vulnerability assessments and downscaled data development have primarily been conducted in response to big storm events, such as Hurricane Sandy, wildfires, and frequent seismic activity. While these events spur innovation and commitment to prepare for future weather events, sustaining stakeholder interest beyond the immediate aftermath of a disaster remains a challenge.

In collaboration with partners across the public sector and academia, HGA has taken steps to identify the knowledge gaps in climate adaptation research and advocate for a new standard across the AEC industry. By engaging with data producers and end users, we have begun to identify pathways for utilizing well-vetted downscaled climate projection data in project design, evaluation, and performance. A proactive approach to climate adaptation planning will reinforce strong communication and responsibility to the client throughout the entirety of a project’s lifetime.

[1] Lemos et al., “Narrowing the climate information usability gap” (2012).

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Have thoughts, feedback, or information about a state’s climate projection data? Would you like to learn more about the national assessment, and/or to be notified when a paper with the full results is published? Let us know here.

About the Authors

Ariane Laxo, CID, IIDA, LEED AP ID+C, EDAC, is an Interior Designer at HGA, where she specializes in resiliency planning strategies.

Jane O’Malley is an Intern at HGA and Graduate Research Assistant in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, where she researches policy mechanisms to advance low-carbon technologies and achieve carbon reductions.