Advancing Equitable Climate Adaptation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — Dr. Reza Khanbilvardi

by Lylia Saurel

In early June, Puerto Rico experienced an extreme heat wave with heat indices of up to 125°F marking its warmest stretch of weather ever recorded. High temperature and extreme heat indices were also reported in the nearby U.S. Virgin Islands, resulting in a heat advisory for parts of the islands and creating dangerous conditions for the health of individuals.

Heat peak indexes in Puerto Rico in early June (credits to the National Weather Service)

A team of City College students is joining a Climate Adaptation Partnerships network to advance a more equitable adaptation to the climate change effects in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The team, led by Reza Khanbilvardi, civil engineering professor and Executive Director of the CUNY Remote Sensing of the Earth Institute (CUNY CREST), the team’s focus will be on providing sustained regional research and community engagement on the islands related to inland flooding.

Khanbilvardi, who received his Ph.D. in hydrology and has worked on inland flood modeling in Puerto Rico for more than 20 years, said that the success of the program stems from the interconnection of the network that will enable a complete adaptation from the islands to the various climate and society issues caused by the climate crisis.

“We are scientists so we can suggest adaptation strategies, but it is really the implementation of these strategies with the local and regional communities and governmental agencies that will enable us to find the right adaptation strategy,” 

In total, 12 teams will collaborate on the $6 million NOAA project which is set to run until 2027 and designed to enhance local climate adaptive capacities. Upon the successful completion of the objectives, Khanbilvardi believes the chances of renewal should be high.

“They normally try to continue to build on the relationship they already built, so the chance of renewal is very high,” he said.

CCNY students will work in close collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico and focus on development and management strategies to deal with the inland flooding portion of the climate impact, which includes rainfall in specific areas of the islands.

Khanbilvardi and his students will collect data and develop a geographical information system, which consists of analyzing maps and integrating location data into descriptive information. They will also be in charge of creating workshops to share their findings with the local communities and the rest of the network.

“There will be additional information coming from the person working on the coastal flooding, the person working on the extreme heat and drought,” he said. “We want to share the knowledge, information, and data across the network including to all communities so they can access it like a library of information and methodologies.”

The decision to include local communities in the adaptation efforts and to co-design strategies will enable the program to find the best way to adapt to upcoming climate issues while taking into account structural and societal limitations, as well.

Part of the challenges caused by climate change are scientific, but a large portion is also socio-economic. The policies across the islands are different from the ones in New York State, for instance, and Khanbilvardi stressed the importance of looking at human involvement in the decision-making process.

“The consequences are much larger than the initial science part of it and that’s why it takes a whole team to deal with this,” he said. “The best one is the federal government, sometimes the resources are there and sometimes they are not enough.”

Network team in Puerto Rico

By the end of the project, the network hopes to achieve three main objectives. The first is to capture a comprehensive understanding of how communities respond before, during, and after extreme weather events. The second is to develop a pathway for translating hazards, forecasting, and planning local risks. And the last is to increase trust, communication, and feedback between scientists, risk forecasters, local communities, and governmental and non-governmental agencies.

“Climate adaptation is a strategy,” Khanbilvardi said. “It has to be between us to explain the problem, the communities and the local government settled agencies to understand the nature of it.”

Most of the students involved in the program come from the Caribbean and understand how to work with the communities, which Khanbilvardi considers a key asset to the development of the program to properly communicate the climate risks and required methodology to the local populations.

Many of them have also experienced the direct effects of climate change in New York City and lost their homes to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which reinforced their decision to study a topic that resonated with them for their Ph.D. thesis.

Khanbilvardi, who first got involved in climate studies through his hydrology work, said that it is the growing interest of his students and the urgency to take action that moved him to become more engaged in the field.

“Right now, there is not one single community that does not see the impact of climate change in one way or the other,” he said. “It could be the heat, the precipitation, coastal flooding, the cost of the food going up because of the agricultural form. The climate impact is in military operations, in the ocean, in land, in the atmosphere, in air traffic, in transportation so we need to get more and more involved in climate studies.”

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