CELS Professor aims to strengthen our nation’s ports

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Dr. Austin Becker, Assistant Professor in the Department of Marine Affairs of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS)

“Climate change is arguably the biggest environmental challenge modern civilization has ever faced,” says Austin Becker, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Marine Affairs of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS). The world’s seaports are on the frontlines, due to their locations in ecologically sensitive estuaries and their exposure to sea level rise and coastal storms. 

With approximately 90% of the world’s freight transported by sea, and most products traveling through multiple ports en route, ports are also critical to commerce and the economy.

“We are only just beginning to understand the consequences of climate change and their implications for society,” explains Becker. Even with the new climate agreement signed in Paris, the world can expect significant sea level rise and other changes over the next several decades and centuries.

Driven by a lifelong passion for things maritime, and having served as a tall ship captain on educational vessels for 10 years before returning to graduate school, it is no surprise that Dr. Becker now studies port systems and sustainability science. After receiving masters degrees from URI in Marine Affairs and in Environmental Science and Management, he went on to earn his PhD in Stanford University’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources.

Now, Becker’s research at URI identifies port system vulnerabilities and creates tools and methods to facilitate planning and policy for more resilient ports. He works with the public, policy makers, and industries in collaborative efforts that engage people in challenging conversations and foster a more collective sense of responsibility for investing in solutions.

“I hope that my work will play a role in making coastal areas more resilient to storms and sea level rise and overall better places to live,” offers Becker. 

portFor example, Becker’s research group develops and utilizes visualizations that represent the impact of storms, sea level rise, and climate change on ports and other coastal communities. Becker and his lab utilize software such as ArcGIS, and leverage cutting-edge storm modeling under development at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography. They are creating high resolution, local-scale visualizations of extreme natural disaster scenarios, such as hurricanes. Right now, the Port of Galilee in Rhode Island is being used as a test site for the new technique, which will eventually be available for coastal communities throughout the United States. 

Using future scenarios developed with students in the Department of Landscape Architecture and decision support tools, Becker’s lab aims to help stakeholders engage with the nuances of long-term land-use planning involving hazards.  These tools help people understand the importance of creating resilient ports and communities that minimize the risk of economic, social, and environmental damages. 

URI’s highly-regarded Department of Marine Affairs, explains Becker, coupled with Rhode Island’s progressive stance on climate change and resilience, make this the perfect place to research and apply these new techniques. Becker is committed for the long-term: “I plan to keep working to find effective tools and methods that help decision makers develop more holistic approaches to long-term planning for climate change at our coasts.”