CELS Grad Student Innovates Ways to Visualize Climate Change

“There are massive public policy decisions that need to be made about how we adapt to climate change,” explains PhD candidate Peter Stempel, describing the significance of his research in the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS).

Photo credit Skyy-McKendry, courtesy Etched Magazine

Working under the guidance of his advisor, Dr. Austin Becker in the Department of Marine Affairs, Stempel is developing a new way of visualizing climate change. Incorporating skills from a variety of disciplines including marine affairs, computer science, engineering and his previous experience in design and landscape architecture, he produces highly realistic images of climate change impacts that are scientifically grounded. His images may change the way scientists communicate climate change impacts, policy makers make decisions about coastal infrastructure, and landscape architects draw.

“It was hard for others to understand why I would leave a successful architecture and design practice to do something completely different,” recounts Stempel of his decision to step down from the firm he founded in Utah to enter a graduate program at URI. “Nobody was doing the research that I thought I could do here at URI.” Eager to begin investigating how climate change visualizations will impact critical public policy decisions, Stempel shifted the operations of his design practice to colleagues and enrolled in CELS.

Stempel’s move reflects an urgency to address what he perceives as “a huge communication problem regarding sea level rise and storm surges.” The problem stems from the traditional way sea level rise is visualized and communicated. The traditional model, often called a “bathtub model,” depicts an abstract map with blue lines showing how high the water level will reach in a given community. Stempel feels that abstract images fail to show the real impacts of events such as climate-change-induced storm surges because they do not provide the viewer with a sense of scale, time or space. Ultimately, this disconnect can impede decision-making according to Stempel. “The traditional way in which we visualize and understand the hazards of climate change actually get in the way of good decision-making,” says Stempel. He feels that realism “is very important because it’s not just that visual media is the way we communicate today; we’ve evolved to look at landscapes. The most natural way for us to understand a landscape visualization is to look at a realistic image,” elaborates Stempel.

Stempel’s advisor, Dr. Becker, explains that “design visualizations play a key role in helping communities understand the scope of climate change issues.” Commenting on the importance of Stempel’s research, Becker says that visualizations can enhance people’s understanding of the climate change impacts when the images are easily understood. Or they can create uncertainty and fog when they are misunderstood or poorly represented.

Judith Swift, Director of the Coastal Institute, which funds a portion of Stempel’s research, believes his work can have far reaching consequences on coastal communities. “With serious use of his research, we could see a lessening of extreme damage to residences and businesses, the cost of removing and disposing of marine debris and the enhancement of habitats,” explains Swift.

Peter Stemple model
Model of storm surge impacts by Peter Stempel

Stempel’s unique research relies on a long list of software programs which interface with custom software codes that he writes.  The innovative and highly technical nature of Stempel’s images can occasionally present hurdles.  “There is nobody I can go to and say, ‘How can I fix this?’ If I break something I have to fix it myself,” reflects Stempel.

However, Stempel is “humbled” by the amount of support he has received from URI professors, his advisor, and his funding sources including the Rhode Island Sea Grant, Rhode Island Land Grant, the Coastal Institute, and CELS. “When I reach out to people who have something I need, I am amazed at how immediately willing they are to help me,” reflects Stempel.

In the long term, Stempel hopes his research will build meaningful bridges between science and design and help coastal communities better understand the hazards they face. “Finding a way to make visualizations of impacts that are realistic is really important if we are going to communicate to the broadest base of people and have truly participatory decision making,” Stempel concludes.