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Neil Debbage researches how urban residents can become more resilient to extreme heat and flooding

Neil Debbage researches how urban residents can become more resilient to extreme heat and flooding

UTSA assistant professor Neil Debbage researches urban climatology, natural hazards and sustainability.

(March 1, 2019) -- Neil Debbage, an assistant professor of geography and environmental sustainability, in the UTSA Department of Political Science and Geography researches urban climatology, natural hazards and sustainability.

He is utilizing geographic information systems (GIS), statistical modeling and numerical weather modeling to better understand how cities and their residents can become more resilient to heat and flood threats. Debbage regularly teaches courses focused on weather and climate, physical geography and GIS.

In his previous research projects, Debbage studied the urban heat island effect. His ongoing work analyzes both the physical and social factors that influence urban flooding vulnerability.

Debbage’s research has been published in Water Resources Research, Computers, Environment and Urban Systems, and the International Journal of Climatology and has appeared in several news outlets including NPR.

We recently asked the assistant professor in the UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts (COLFA) to tell us about his current work.

Can you tell us about some of your current research?

My research focuses on how we can make cities and their residents more resilient to climate hazards like extreme heat and flooding.

My most recent study, which was published in the Journal of Hydrometeorology in January, analyzed how the urban environment of Atlanta, Georgia influenced the devastating flood that occurred there in 2009. We used a regional weather model to simulate the storms that produced the flooding.

The simulations indicated that the urban environment of Atlanta not only enhanced the quantity of surface runoff but also amplified the initial amount of precipitation. It is one of the first papers to highlight how the urban environment can enhance the amount of precipitation during a major flooding event with prominent broad scale drivers.

I also recently finished a project that analyzed if certain population groups are disproportionately at risk for flooding throughout the Charlanta megaregion in the Southeastern United States, which includes Atlanta, GA; Greenville, SC; Spartanburg, SC; and Charlotte, NC.

Specifically, I used GIS techniques to determine the racial characteristics of individuals residing in FEMA flood zones. The results indicated that African Americans were 44 percent more likely to reside in areas at risk for flooding than Whites across the entire megaregion.

This is a particularly troubling finding since vulnerable communities often suffer more causalities during floods and are also forced to overcome inequities during flood recovery efforts. Hopefully, a greater awareness of racial inequities in urban flood risk can help inform efforts aimed at enhancing the resiliency of those most disproportionately affected.

Currently, I am translating much of my research to the local San Antonio area. I started my position in the Department of Political Science and Geography at UTSA in the Fall of 2018 and am beginning several projects focused on the urban climate challenges facing our community. These types of issues have garnered quite a bit of attention recently with the draft release of the San Antonio Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

How has your personal journey influenced your work?

Growing up, I was always curious about spatial patterns. This curiosity ultimately led me to pursue a degree in geography at the University of Georgia where I became very interested in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and other forms of mapping technologies.

Once I developed these technical skillsets, I realized I could apply spatial analysis to help address weather and climate issues. This became my passion during both my undergraduate and graduate studies.

Can you tell us about the most important thing going on in your field that people aren’t talking about as much as they could be?

One topic that perhaps is not getting the attention it deserves is the potential synergies between various adaptation and mitigation measures aimed at making cities more resilient to climate hazards.

Often, within the academic community, we tend to isolate certain aspects of the natural system. This can leave us vulnerable to overlooking possible co-benefits between various approaches.

The continued development of collaborative, multi-disciplinary research teams will likely be an important catalyst for identifying more synergistic solutions that enhance the overall resiliency of our cities.

What advice do you share with students interested in entering your field?

I always encourage students to seek out professors for personalized guidance and mentorship since no two students are alike. Guiding emerging scholars, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, through the research process is one of the most rewarding experiences of my position. I also always encourage students to explore their own interests and passions.

In terms of specific skillsets that are helpful for researching weather and climate topics, computer programming, statistics and GIS are all important tools. These are also adaptable skillsets that can be very helpful on the job market.

What inspires you?

The students at UTSA inspire me. Their enthusiasm and dedication for learning serve as a daily reminder for why I wanted to become a professor. Their optimism and passion for making our community and the world a better place is infectious.

Kara Soria

Learn more about Neil Debbage.

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