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Ellen Douglas and Paul Kirshen received the Federal Highway Administration’s 2017 Environmental Excellence Award. Image by: Harry Brett
November 3, 2017

UMass Boston climate scientists receive national award

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  • Boston
Professors Douglas, Kirshen recognized for Boston Harbor flood risk model

Two UMass Boston climate scientists have earned national recognition for their work assessing the vulnerability of Boston’s tunnels and bridges to sea level rise.

School for the Environment professors Ellen Douglas and Paul Kirshen and their research team were one of 18 groups nationwide to receive the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) 2017 Environmental Excellence Award, in recognition of their work to develop the Boston Harbor Flood Risk Model. Only one other Massachusetts project won the biannual award.

Representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation went to Washington, D.C. to receive the award this summer. The Massachusetts division of the FHWA said they wanted to have a separate ceremony with their project partners: UMass Boston, the consulting firm Woods Hole Group, and the MassDOT Highway Division. That ceremony happened at UMass Boston on Tuesday.

“This is a big deal. We wanted to do this personally,” said Jeff McEwen, a division administrator for the FHWA's state office.

Built in the 1950s, the Central Artery/Tunnel Project is made up of more than 160 lane-miles, more than half of them in tunnels, six Interchanges, and 200 bridges.

The June 2015 report Climate Change and Extreme Weather Vulnerability Assessments and Adaptation Options for the Central Artery looked at what would happen if the Boston area experienced storm surge like New York City experienced with Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when streets, tunnels, and subway lines were all flooded. State and local agencies are using the Boston Harbor Flood Risk Model to inform flood emergency resiliency plans, including those being drafted for the Central Artery Project.

Douglas, an associate professor of hydrology, developed the method for estimating the flood probabilities due to storm surge and led the drafting of the report.  Paul Kirshen, a professor of climate adaptation, developed and implemented the vulnerability assessment of MassDOT facilities and made recommendations for adaptation strategies.

In an award letter to MassDOT, Acting FHWA Deputy Administrator Walter C. Waidelich, Jr. called the Boston Harbor Flood Risk Model a “gold standard for coastal resiliency work within Massachusetts,” and “a blueprint that national and international agencies can mirror to better assess design resiliency options.”

Kirk Bosma, a senior coastal engineer at Woods Hole Group, was responsible for developing, calibrating, and running the hydrodynamic model. He says the model is being used by a variety of organizations.

“Partners HealthCare has looked at their facilities, Chelsea, Boston Harbor – every single one is evaluating their risks and prioritizing. Logan Airport had a study done, dismissed it, and then [redid it because of this report],” Bosma said.

“This has been the most amazing team to be a part of,” Douglas said, a sentiment Kirshen echoed.

“We understand that these types of projects come together through collaboration,” said Nelson Hoffman, the program development team leader for the FHWA state office. “It’s a partnership and there’s a number of partners here, and we felt that it was important that we make a presentation of these awards personally and thank you personally for the work that you’ve done and for the future work that you’re going to do because I know this is not a standalone experience.”

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