Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Engineering Between Homer Simpson and Mr. Spock

People generally like water.  They like swimming and a sunny day at the beach.  They like sailing and a beach front view of a sunset.  They like a beach stroll and collecting sea shells.  Given a choice of living and working in Manhattan, Kansas (Go TCU!!!, as K-State enters town this week) or living and working at any beach location, in just about any country  - - the beach is always going to win with the vast majority of individuals and families.

Rappaport and Sachs have an excellent paper, The United States as a Coastal Nation, that illustrates the fact that the United States population and money is moving to the coasts.  Given this human migration fact, and the facts associated with coastal risks caused by climate change and extreme weather events - - engineering is faced with working and interfacing with two very different groups of people.

The first group of coastal residents are the Homer Simpsons.  The Homers believe that nasty disasters can't happen to them.  They generally don't understand basic probability and the true meaning of a 100-year storm or surge event.  They generally live closer to the water and expect coastal areas to be "bailed out" by the federal government.

The second group are called the Mr. Spocks.  They walk the beach and look into the sunset while forming rational expectations of future random events and recognize that climate change means that these probabilities increase overtime.  They understand that you can have 200-year storms or surges in consecutive years.  They view coastal living in terms of costs and benefits and risks and rewards.  They currently see greater benefits and rewards than costs and risks.  The Spocks like to live on higher ground near the beach.  The Spocks also expect coastal areas to be "bailed out" by the federal government.

Continued extreme weather will force engineers into long-term dealings with the Homers and the Spocks.  Both the Homers and Spocks will control the discussion and economics of where we live.  Engineering will provide a focus on how we build and on what we build in the context of coastal communities.  Prevention, prediction, and preparation will become key words and actions.  Engineers must become more adaptive as we work between the worlds of the Homers and Spocks.  This will not be easy.

Coastal communities are a complex network of interconnected risks.  Both the Homers and the Spocks tend to underestimate the risk of infrastructure systemic breakdowns and over estimate the robustness of such systems.  For coastal communities in the age of surging sea levels, the problem starts with a wanting to supplement an unhappy reality (my nice beach house could be gone out to sea during the next storm) with a convenient fantasy (there will always be more money and someone else will take more responsibility for my actions).  Engineers will be placed in the role of trying to cheat a disappointing fate. 

Most engineers have never had to take a class called "ENG 101 - - Cheating Fate."

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