UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A multi-institutional research team led by Penn State has been awarded a $17 million, five-year cooperative research agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science to understand how interconnected systems are exposed to natural hazards that create vulnerabilities and risks for society and how societies respond and adapt to these risks.
The team will be employing computational modeling and data science tools to investigate the following research questions: How does the characterization and quantification of hazards (flood, water scarcity, wildfire) propagate through the interconnected system, affecting the exposure and vulnerability of populations and physical systems to these hazards? How do these populations and physical systems respond to these risks and how do these responses feed back to the interconnected system? What are the features and characteristics that fundamentally give rise to resilient human and institutional response strategies.
Specific regional case studies the team will consider are water stress and wildfires in the U.S. West; water stress in the Great Plains; and flooding in the Upper Midwest, Gulf Coast and Northeast.
The new project, called PCHES-ADAPT, is the third the DOE’s Multisector Dynamics (MSD) Program has awarded to the Program on Coupled Human-Earth Systems (PCHES), a nine-university research team that works to develop new, state-of-the-art, integrated modeling frameworks to drive advances in the quantitative understanding of coupled systems, and risk and response behaviors.
Karen Fisher-Vanden, professor of environmental and resource economics and public policy, and director of the Institute for Sustainable Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Science (SAFES), is the principal investigator and the co-director of PCHES. “In the prior PCHES-FRAME project, we developed coupled modeling frameworks that captured important feedbacks between various systems, allowing us to look at human and natural responses to hazards,” she said. “PCHES-ADAPT focuses on understanding adaptive response behaviors accounting for these interconnected system feedbacks.”
The team will also conduct a method intercomparison of uncertainty characterization and quantification (UC/UQ) techniques to test how generalizable the chosen UC/UQ methodological approach is to alternative modeling frameworks and applications. The case studies and intercomparisons are expected to drive innovations in the application of hazard characterization, machine learning (ML), emulation, risk identification, and end-to-end UC/UQ to coupled multisector, multiscale modeling systems that can be shared with the broader research community.
Murali Haran, professor and head of the Department of Statistics in the Eberly College of Science and co-PI of the project, explained, “The very notion of risk is defined in terms of probabilities, and in order to understand and respond to risks we need to combine information from multiple data sources and sophisticated models of various systems like the climate and energy systems.”
“Cutting-edge statistical, econometric, and optimization methods are central to a lot of the research carried out by our group,” he added.
The multidisciplinary PCHES team includes economists, climate scientists, engineers, statisticians, hydrologists, and earth scientists from Penn State and eight other universities. The Penn State team comprises 20 faculty members, staff members, graduate students and postdocs from the colleges of Agricultural Sciences (CAS), Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS), and Eberly College of Science (ECoS). Co-PIs to the project are Murali Haran (ECoS), Klaus Keller (EMS), Robert Nicholas (EMS), Mort Webster (EMS), and Doug Wrenn (CAS). Collaborating universities include Boston University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Purdue University, Stanford University, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, University of New Hampshire and University of Texas-Austin.
“It’s not often that an economist, geoscientist, statistician, water systems expert, lawyer, and energy systems engineer come together to work on research,” Haran said. “Remarkably, our PCHES research team does this several times a month. And it’s not easy to find a group of experts in the field who work together so well.”
Fisher-Vanden said, “We have been working as a team for more than a decade, which has allowed us to build not only relationships across universities but also across disciplines. We’ve learned important lessons about team science over the years, including understanding and appreciating differences in disciplinary norms, modeling approaches, and data choices."
Several of Penn State’s interdisciplinary units support the operations of the project. The Institute for Computational and Data Science provides the computational resources and support for the entire PCHES team, both internal and external to Penn State. “We have also utilized the outstanding consulting staff of ICDS-RISE to help us create coupled systems of individual disciplinary models. Their expertise has been invaluable,” Fisher-Vanden said.
The Earth and Environmental Systems Institute in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and the Institute for Sustainable Agricultural, Food and Environmental Science in the College of Agricultural Sciences, two institutes under the Institutes for Energy and Environment, have provided space and administrative support to bring this team together across colleges. In order to support the cross-University coordination of the grant application, the Strategic Interdisciplinary Research Office at Penn State provided pre-award and submission support.
Fisher-Vanden also noted that the PCHES project has helped prepare a new cohort of students who can continue advancing the MSD field. “As a university-based team, graduate students and postdocs are key participants in PCHES research activities and PCHES plays a unique role in the training and mentoring of the next generation of MSD researchers,” Fisher-Vanden said. “The PCHES project has been extremely successful over the years placing graduate students and post-docs in academic and research positions to continue their work in the field of multisector dynamics.”
The project provides much needed training opportunities for the next generation of leaders in how to work across academic disciplines. PCHES project member Klaus Keller, professor of geosciences at Penn State and visiting professor at the Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College, said, “This is important, for example, because improving the understanding of multi-sector dynamics in a changing climate requires a careful integration of concepts from many academic fields.”
PCHES member Douglas Wrenn, associate professor of environmental economics at Penn State, said, “Cutting-edge research in environmental economics often requires a firm understanding of both the social- and physical-science aspects of a model. However, it can be difficult for a student, on their own, to game knowledge in the latter area — this project bridges that gap and allows students to interact with scholars across multiple disciplines."
More information can be found on the PCHES project website.