Louisville District Climate Team Leading the Way for Climate Resilience Around the Globe

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District has established a Climate Production Team — the first of its kind at a USACE district — and already, the team’s work is having far-reaching impacts across the globe.

The team’s mission is to meet the ever-growing need to incorporate climate resilience into USACE Civil Works and Military Program missions through the Louisville District’s expertise in hydrology & hydraulics, also known as H&H, engineering and Climate Resilience. They lead climate preparedness and resilience H&H activities for the USACE Great Lakes and Ohio River Division while also supporting the USACE Headquarters Climate Preparedness and Resiliency Community of Practice, U.S. Army and Department of Defense nationally and internationally.

The team is primarily comprised of employees from the Louisville District’s Engineering Division H&H Branch, with Co-Op students and Department of the Army Interns being added to support heavy production times. They also utilize district employees in geographic information systems, planning, master planning, and employees from other USACE districts who work in climate areas.

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“Climate has many connotations in today’s political realm,” said Nicholas Hudson, civil engineer. “Although important, our group is not as involved in the climate mitigation to reduce greenhouse gases or sustainability portions like with the efforts of big timber and electrification. Our team is working for the betterment of infrastructure to appropriately design for anticipated conditions in the next 20-50 years.”

Lauren Alexander, Chief of Hydraulics and Hydrology Modeling Section, described assessing climate vulnerability as an equation, where exposure to the climate hazard, how sensitive you are to that climate hazard and whether you can adapt to that climate hazard are all added together.

Members of the Climate Team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District Hydrology & Hydraulics Branch, pose for a portrait at the district office in Louisville, Kentucky, Mar. 20, 2024. USACE PHOTO BY KELSIE HALL

“It takes knowing those three components and trying to separate all the different climate data, and other data out there, into those three areas so that people can apply it to project specific information and assess how vulnerable infrastructure is to climate,” she said.

With the USACE Climate Preparedness and Resiliency Community of Practice, the team is leading the development of the Civil Works Vulnerability Assessment Tool, a tool last developed in 2014 that is used in all feasibility planning projects as part of the qualitative climate assessment. The team is also assisting with the development of the USACE 2024 Climate Adaptation Plan, projected riverine mapping, installation specific climate resilience plans and an interactive GIS viewer.

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The team also conducts qualitative climate assessments to support local planning projects that protect local communities such as the Johnson County flood risk management project and investigating solutions to flooding in the Kentucky River basin. Their impacts are also far reaching as the team has worked to develop Climate Assessment Tools for six partner nations, including Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

“I enjoy the work because the projects are constantly changing due to the evolving nature of research being conducted related to climate. The work is very thought provoking, involves collaboration with a team, and focuses on the best ways to help communities given hazards we are predicting will arise,” said Marissa Conn Minister, hydraulic engineer. “I have found the best part of being on the team is brainstorming with colleagues and other experts to develop useful tools and solutions. I hope the long-term results of our efforts will be growing the available tools and references that can be used to prepare communities for climate change.”

Members of the Climate Team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District Hydrology & Hydraulics Branch, discuss calculations utilizing the Hydrologic Engineering Center River Analysis System (HEC-RAS) at the district office in Louisville, Kentucky, Apr. 18, 2024. USACE PHOTO BY KELSIE HALL

Because traditional flood mapping tools cannot adequately support extremely large areas – like entire countries – the team has been working closely with USACE’s Engineer Research and Development Center, who has developed a different process for estimating flood mapping.

These Climate Assessment Tools allow countries to import the critical infrastructure that is most important to them and overlay it with the climate data the team provides to complete similar risk assessments for their own infrastructure regarding climate change.

“A lot of what our group is doing to support that is H&H modeling for the entire world for a variety of recurrence intervals, like 100-year, 500-year, 1,000-year floods and also for different greenhouse gas emission scenarios,” said Lauren Alexander, H&H Modeling Section Chief. “We can estimate the worst-case scenario flood for a specific recurrence interval, or the most likely scenario flood with how greenhouse gas emissions are going now, to provide to our customers so they can determine what is most realistic for them or how much uncertainty they want to capture in their modeling.”

But like anything, the work doesn’t come without its own unique challenges.

“A challenge we face is the amount of uncertainty that is involved in climate change data,” said Conn Minister. “The Climate Team overcomes this challenge by using engineering judgement, reliable data, and the most current predictions available.”

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The team is also learning new coding languages like Python and R Studio to support their efforts in the long-term.

Alexander says while the tools are outputting pretty good estimates for flood mapping scenarios, they aren’t perfect. “It does still take the eye of an engineer to go over it and do quality assessments,” she added.

As for long term goals, Hudson said, “I hope that we can move the dial with incorporating climate resilience into policy, programming, planning, design and construction for USACE, the Army and the DoD.”

“We’re working right now to get it more engrained in people’s minds that it goes beyond just being a checkbox exercise,” added Alexander. “As we are designing things with very long lifespans, whether civil works or military infrastructure, everyone needs to be thinking about climate change every step of the planning process and every step of the design process. It’s something that will literally affect everything the Corps does and everything we do as engineers.”

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