Uniting faculty members from the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering, Center for Land Use and Research (CLEAR), and Connecticut Sea Grant, the Climate Corps will serve Connecticut communities by assisting with analyzing climate impact and presenting adaptation strategies while providing a unique learning opportunity for undergraduates.
Students in the Climate Corps will engage in classroom teaching and service learning to develop valuable workplace skills. The program is divided into two components, featuring instruction in the fall semester and a practicum in the spring. Students will learn about climate change and public policy in a new team-taught course entitled: Climate Resilience and Adaptation: Municipal Policy and Planning; then, in the following semester, they will form teams and, with the help of faculty mentors, work with local administrators in communities across the state to support climate adaptation planning. Students will directly assist town officials by preparing assessments of vulnerable areas, structures and systems. They will present ideas on how to prepare for the challenges and suggest methods to acclimate to a changing climate. The goal is to provide municipalities with data, models, forecasts, policies and information on costs so officials can make informed decisions to manage the risks their communities face. The program will draw its students from the Environmental Sciences, Environmental Studies and Environmental Engineering majors. Four Connecticut communities will participate in the first year.
The Climate Corps is funded by a Level 2 grant awarded during the second annual Academic Plan Proposal Awards. Level 2 projects receive up to $150,000 over a three-year period.
Chet Arnold, an extension educator, director of CLEAR and principal investigator on Climate Corps, is excited about the strong partnerships this project facilitates. “There’s a great opportunity here for cross-pollination,” says Arnold. “Our CLEAR/Sea Grant climate team has been talking with towns about climate adaptation for the last five or six years, and the list of challenges our communities face is long. Harnessing the power of undergraduate service learning to help overcome some of these obstacles has great potential.”
Mark Boyer, a Board of Trustees distinguished professor in the Department of Geography, explains those hurdles towns encounter. “It’s a resource gap – funds, staff, expertise, time – these are all necessary to develop comprehensive strategies. We’re able to solve those problems with a single, powerful instrument – students. The towns get the support they need and students receive training and invaluable real world experience.”
The groundwork for the direction of the Climate Corps came from a study Boyer completed last year that examined statewide climate adaptation planning in Connecticut’s 169 municipalities. Boyer’s team found that 79 percent of towns had completed state-mandated and approved Natural Hazard Mitigation Plans (NHMPs). NHMPs receive approval through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They identify risks and hazards in order to reduce the loss of life and property in natural disasters and encourage adopting long-term mitigation strategies. These plans are necessary to receive federal funds for mitigation projects. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protect and Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection work with municipal officials to complete NHMPs.
While a majority of towns had filed NHMPs, only 15 percent had completed the state-recommended climate change vulnerability assessment and just 14 percent had climate change action plans. The state of Connecticut has been working to mitigate climate change through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program, but adapting to climate change is a challenge that has been largely left for towns to tackle. There are currently no federal or state requirements for towns to complete climate change assessments or action plans. Boyer’s study also explored the barriers for planning and action on the part of municipalities. Surveyed towns shared a number of reasons, including other issues taking higher priority and climate change skepticism due to inadequate public information, in addition to limited resources. The Climate Corps seeks to address these impediments to planning and ensure towns are adequately prepared for the many threats climate change poses.
“There are so many unknowns with climate change,” explains Bruce Hyde, a land use educator with CLEAR and an instructor with Climate Corps. “I think people have become overwhelmed and we can provide assistance and attempt to shore up disconnects between the local and state levels.” Hyde has over thirty years of experiences of regional and city planning.
Hyde and Associate Educator Juliana Barrett, another member of Climate Corps team, have been working closely with municipal officials for several years, hosting a series of events through the Climate Adaptation Academy (CAA). The CAA is a collaboration between Connecticut Sea Grant, CLEAR and researchers, consultants and town administrators to work on adaptive climate solutions.
“Following Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy, Juliana and I became even more aware of the challenges climate change presents to both coastal and inland Connecticut communities,” says Hyde.
While those powerful hurricanes represent a growing trend of intensified storms strengthened by the warming of the planet’s oceans, they highlight other pressing dangers, particularly to shoreline towns. The sea level in the Northeast is rising at a much faster pace than other parts of the planet. The loss of coastline, expedited by erosion and damage from storm surge, brings a host of legal and real estate issues to the forefront that towns will have to manage. This can potentially impact real estate values and taxes as towns lose profitable shoreline assets. The shrinking of lots can cause legal headaches for towns, forcing them to make difficult decisions about ordinances, regulations and zoning. There are an estimated 67,000 homes at risk in Connecticut from storm surge alone.
Communities also face other severe problems with water management. Though storms frequently bring heavy precipitation, flooding has become more common throughout the year as climate change alters weather patterns. The frequency of heavy, localized downpours, known as rain bombs, has increased. These rains overwhelm storm drainage systems, not designed to handle such excessive precipitation, leading to repetitive flooding. Flooding can contaminate wells and cause septic system failures. Additionally, storm surges and sea level rise contribute to these effects, which can include saltwater intrusion into aquifers and freshwater tidal marshes and changes to fish and wildlife habitats.
Increased heat and warmer waters threaten human health. Rising global temperatures affect members of the community susceptible to heat-related illnesses and bring vector-borne diseases, such as those carried by mosquitoes and ticks into new areas.
The problem of warmer waters has already affected Connecticut. A unit at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station had to be shut down in 2012 when the cooling water taken in from Long Island Sound was above 75 degrees, too hot according to operating licenses. The maximum temperature was raised to 80 degrees two years later by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a federal agency.
Towns face numerous challenges from climate change that requires a comprehensive approach. Much work has already begun in towns through UConn Extension, CLEAR and Sea Grant. Barrett, for example, has been helping towns create living shorelines as a means to combat erosion.
Barrett explains that living shorelines are a technique to use natural materials such as coir logs solely or in combination with small amounts of rock, to control erosion. Because of negative environmental impacts from hard structures such as sea walls, living shorelines need to be considered where site conditions are appropriate.
“These are not mitigation strategies. These are ways to adapt and prepare for climate change. Our goal is for the Climate Corps to help towns address these issues,” says Hyde.
More about the Climate Corps, including information for students and communities interested in participating, and UConn’s continued outreach to help towns adjust to climate change can be found at Adapt CT.