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UNC Gets $3.5M to Study Extreme Weather

Construction debris lines the beach at Surf City after the Hurricane Florence in 2018. Photo: Surf City

University of North Carolina researchers have been awarded a $3.5 million grant to study extreme weather events using an interdisciplinary approach, which is to combine methods, insights and data from natural and social sciences, geosciences and engineering, to develop adaptation and mitigation strategies for future storms and flooding.

As storms become more frequent and intense, research on natural hazards is no longer a topic people take on because they care about them, “At this point, people have to worry about them. They are very real and pressing issues,” said Mike Piehler, director of the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Piehler, Carolina Population Center Director Elizabeth Frankenberg and Institute for Marine Science Director Rick Luettich, are leading the new project awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation under its Growing Convergence Research, or GCR, program. GCR program was founded in 2016 as part of the National Science Foundation’s “Big Ideas” awards to fund interdisciplinary research that tackles a specific problem, the university announced Monday.

This is UNC’s first Growing Convergence Research award, and is an expansion of Dynamics of Extreme Events, People, and Places, or DEEPP Hub, a pilot study that began with a $500,000 Creativity Hub award in 2019. The Creativity Hubs program encourages researchers from across Carolina’s campus to work together on important issues.

Led by Frankenberg, DEEPP Hub is made up of experts from social and environmental sciences, engineering and public policy. The experts combine community survey data with satellite imaging and flood mapping to create a more comprehensive picture of the impact and recovery residents experience when hurricanes and floods strike.

“Elizabeth did a great job at finding this interdisciplinary group throughout campus and bringing everybody together around the idea of big storms being a huge challenge for the coast and for inland areas, and that the way to solve these problems is to think of them as coupled natural systems,” Piehler said. “You can’t separate the environment from the people or the people from the environment because they are inextricably linked.”

Frankenberg has studied for 15 years the psychosocial impacts, like post-traumatic stress, of extreme weather events through the lens of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. She is working to translate this research to North Carolina.

“When you think about the North Carolina coast, one of the differences we’re trying to figure out how to take account of is the fact that these storms recur,” she said. “Tsunamis can reoccur, but it’s a very different mechanism. We know we’ll see hurricanes each year. The questions of preparation, mitigation, adaptation, and recovery are different in an environment where there’s a recurrence of events.”

The grant from is giving researchers time look at the impacts of hurricanes and flooding.

“What I think is important about the NSF funding is that it will fuel the project for, we hope, five years,” Frankenberg says. “This is confirmation that we’re on the right track. The Creativity Hub award was like taxiing down the runway, and the NSF grant is the lift to get off the ground. You need that fuel to really climb.”

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Staff Report

The story was compiled by staff members of Coastal Review Online.