TTU engineering assistant professor participates in international symposium addressing climate change

“Words are cheap when it comes to saying what we should and shouldn’t do to adapt to climate change effects — but not many U.S. academic institutions can claim credit when it comes to playing an active role in capacity building of nations most vulnerable to climate change.”

That’s how Tennessee Tech University’s Faisal Hossain, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, describes TTU’s active role in improving the structural capacity of Bangladesh to adapt to climate change this century.

It’s projected that widespread climate change resulting from global warming could eliminate most of the world’s glaciers and severely threaten low-lying coastlines of Bangladesh and many other countries by the end of the century.

TTU’s involvement all began with a speech. Hossain was a keynote speaker at a recent international symposium about climate change that attracted about 250 delegates from 17 countries and was endorsed and attended by the heads of state for Bangladesh and Iceland.

Experts say that global warming has already begun and predict the resulting climate change will increase temperature, decrease availability of fresh water, contribute to rising sea level, melt Himalayan glaciers, increase the frequency and intensity of extreme meteorological events and shift crop zones in South Asia — all of which would have a global impact on agricultural, economic, social and environmental sectors, but especially in the world’s developing countries.

The International Symposium on Climate Change and Food Security in South Asia brought international experts together to address these issues and recommend possible mitigations and adaptations.

Hossain’s presentation, based on research being conducted jointly with the Ohio State University’s Douglas Alsdorf, was about how developing countries could benefit by using cost-effective, shared satellite technology to measure and better understand surface water flow and storage changes.

The Surface Water Ocean Typography mission plans to use satellite technology to completely cover the world’s ocean and freshwater bodies with repeated elevation measurements.

It is a collaborative international project led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the French Space Agency and includes a network of participants from numerous countries and institutions.

Hossain said he expects the space mission to generate frequent estimates on river flow and lake water levels by 2015. Those estimates would then be made available to all nations, particularly developing ones.

“I think it’s important to help developing countries adapt to climate change because the residents of those countries are the people who will feel its impact most directly. This technology has the potential to provide much assistance,” Hossain said.

“TTU, in collaboration with the Ohio State University, has already demonstrated that the SWOT satellite technology for flow estimation of the Brahmaputra River in Bangladesh is very promising,” he continued.

Without actual test results, Hossain said, it is usually difficult to get an agency interested in leveraging a planned mission.

Flow and storage are important parameters not only for forecasting but also for the management of water and ecology.

“Adequate flow prevents saline ocean water from entering the upstream land regions and helps to maintain healthy ecological and agricultural systems,” Hossain said. “However, worldwide, flow and storage data are hard to get on a routine basis.”

That’s because the same river basin is often the source of water for different countries, but it’s sometimes difficult — for various reasons — for neighboring countries to coordinate information that would be beneficial to everyone, he continued.

SWOT would collect and coordinate all of this elusive flow and storage information, leaving it up to each country only to access and implement the findings.

In Bangladesh, where the symposium was held, fresh water is provided by the Ganges and Brahamaputra rivers, both snow-fed from the Himalayan Mountains. As global warming causes more of that snow to melt and glaciers to recede, however, more fresh water will be emptied into the ocean as the sea levels are projected to rise.

“A sixth of humanity depends on these rivers for water for drinking and agricultural purposes, so global warming would reduce the amount of surface water available in these areas,” Hossain said.

Experts also estimate that a one-meter rise in sea level would submerge a fifth of low-lying country like Bangladesh, including much of its agricultural land, and displace an estimated 25 million people.

“Bangladesh already happens to be a poster child for climate change,” Hossain said. “Salinity intrusion from the projected rise in sea level would decimate much of the country’s cropland because plants won’t grow in soil that has been flooded by salt water. There’s been a lot of talk [about the issue] over the years.

“Fortunately, the president of Bangladesh is also a soil scientist, so he understands how important these issues are, not just for his country but globally,” he continued.

The World Bank, for instance, estimates that worldwide rice production could decline up to 30 percent because of climate change — which could be coming sooner than expected, experts warn.

Iceland’s president said at the symposium that global warming is now “several decades ahead of schedule.” Melting ice sheets in the Arctic and Greenland, which weren’t projected until the middle of this century, are proof of the accelerated pattern, he said.
“Cooperation is called for more urgently than ever before and the sharing of knowledge and experience across national borders is absolutely imperative,” he said.

Hossain agreed. “I felt privileged to represent TTU at such a high-profile international symposium, and I hope that, because of my demonstration of collaborative work with Ohio State’s Doug Alsdorf, I’m helping to make this mission meaningful to the countries that need it most.”

The next step, he said, is to put the academic knowledge into application.

TTU’s Water Center is currently in a five-year cooperative agreement with Bangladesh’s Institute of Water Modeling.

This agreement has now allowed water specialists from Bangladesh to study at TTU for a joint master’s degree in civil engineering while simultaneously learning about water-related issues and gaining state-of-the-art knowledge they can directly implement in their careers operationally in Bangladesh.

The first water specialist from Bangladesh is expected to begin in the spring of 2009.

“During his stay at TTU, he will be trained on the various facets of the SWOT mission in collaboration with the Ohio State University, University of Washington and Bristol University in the United Kingdom,” Hossain said.

The goal, he continued, is to make the Institute of Water Modeling of Bangladesh more involved and capable in leveraging the SWOT mission rather than becoming a simple end-user of the data.

“Water is essential for life everywhere, so this is not only an opportunity for us to help a developing country through projected climate changes. It’s also an opportunity for us to gain international recognition from our expertise in water-related issues,” Hossain said.

“To the best of my knowledge, I am not aware of any other academic institution in the U.S. that is actually trying to improve the water management capacity of Bangladesh for adapting to climate change. Because of the active support of TTU’s Water Center, we feel lucky to be involved in something that may help a nation more than we can possibly imagine at this stage,” he concluded.