Creating a Climate Resilience Toolkit for the Nation

UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC) has a new challenge for this spring – creating an online Climate Resilience Toolkit for the nation that will be part of the President’s Climate Data Initiative.

Because of NEMAC’s role in this new initiative, Director Jim Fox was invited to the White House the day the initiative was launched. Fox was one of 50 experts, including scientists from government agencies like NOAA and NASA, and from Google, Intel and Esri, who met on March 19 to strategize with Obama Administration officials on better ways to educate the nation about climate change.

Fox is hopeful the initiative will help move the country from a mentality of responding to specific weather events to “building resilience” – an effort to plan adaptation to climate change regardless of whether new policies are put in place to reduce carbon emissions. “No matter what we do now with the carbon side, the climate change engine is running,” says Fox. “We’re going to experience a lot more serious stressors from climate change. This initiative reflects a combined view, more of a holistic view that says maybe mitigation is not something we’ll be able to get the whole country or the world on board with, but we’re certainly going to have to find ways to deal with the impact of climate change.”

With climate change, we have a firehose of data but you really can’t drink out of a firehose. People do understand that the weather and climate are changing, but when it comes to data, they need to be able to control the flow so they can sip and not get blasted in the face. That’s what we work on – providing the information in a format people can actually use in their daily life. - Jim Fox, director of UNC Asheville's NEMAC

NEMAC has already demonstrated expertise in creating tools used by decision-makers and planners to assess potential risks from flooding and other environmental changes. This month, NEMAC was given an award from the U.S. Forest Service for its role in creating the ForWarn early warning system that tracks threats to the nation’s forests from fire, insects, disease, storms and human activity. NEMAC’s WNC Vitality Index also is widely used by planners in the region.

In addition, NEMAC created multi-graph software, which is featured in the Global Climate Dashboard NEMAC built for the NOAA website climate.gov. Fox says NEMAC will use the same software to create the new Climate Resilience Toolkit that individuals and localities will be able to use to assess possible threats from climate change on a local level.

He says UNC Asheville students will play key roles in creating the new toolkit, just as they have with past NEMAC projects. And like other NEMAC visualization tools, the Climate Resilience Toolkit will combine lots of data with other important elements. “We humans learn by stories more than from just data,” says Fox. “So a lot of our tools link a narrative or story-telling with the ability to interact with the data.”

And the work will be intensive. “This is going to happen very quickly,” according to Fox. “We’re going to aim for the end of June for the first version and then we’ll add more modules to it over the next year.”

The new federal initiative received coverage in the New York Times, and NEMAC’s role was covered by the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Homepage image caption: Jim Fox in older photo at the French Broad River with UNC Asheville students Egg Davis (left) and Jeff Hicks (center) who are now IT professionals. Photo by John Fletcher, courtesy of Asheville Citizen-Times.