Students tackle climate change challenges at U of T Climate Impacts Hackathon

April 22, 2024 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

On the last weekend of Toronto’s warmest winter on record, students gathered for the inaugural U of T Climate Impact Hackathon to tackle the challenges brought by a warming planet.

Their hackathon challenges? How should the city of Ottawa adapt its snow clearing plan in response to increased precipitation caused by our warming atmosphere? How should irrigation practices in Sudan change in response to higher temperatures and reduced rainfall? And where should new cooling stations — swimming pools, libraries, community centres, shopping malls — be located in an increasingly sweltering City of Toronto?

Hackathon participants included undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of natural science and engineering disciplines, as well as from the humanities and social sciences. They were divided into teams and competed for prizes for the best solutions.

The hackathon was led by Paul Kushner, a professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary physics in the Department of Physics in the Faculty of Arts & Science; and Karen Smith, an associate professor, teaching stream in the Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences (DPES) at U of T Scarborough. Co-organizers included Michael Morris, a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics, and Francisco Camacho, a masters of environmental science student at DPES.

The event was hosted by the Department of Physics and the DPES; sponsors included Climate Positive Energy (CPE), the Centre for Climate Science and Engineering (CSE) and the Cosmic Future Initiative.

A large group of people in a room with three people presenting information.
Students, instructors and organizers at the Climate Impact Hackathon. Photo: Milan Ilnyckyj, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED, via Flickr.

The weekend was kicked off with a wide-ranging discussion from a panel of climate experts with diverse perspectives.

Steve Easterbrook, director of the School of the Environment, spoke about how climate models work and why we can trust them. Lisa MacTavish, project lead in resilience, Climate Resilience Policy & Research for the City of Toronto, shared how the city uses climate projections to manage infrastructure and crisis planning. And Daniel Posen, an associate professor in the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering, talked about his expertise at the intersection of climate change and engineering.

To develop their solutions, students used the University of Toronto Climate Downscaling Workflow (UTCDW) which includes the UTCDW Guidebook developed by Morris, Smith and Kushner and the UTCDW Survey, a project design tool. The UTCDW was developed with the support of the CSE, CPE and the Data Sciences Institute.

Climate models or simulations typically work on a global scale; the UTCDW is designed to help researchers “downscale” what the models do in order to understand how smaller regions and even individual cities are being affected by climate change. The resulting projections can then inform decisions on a local level.

“In our proposal for support to develop these tools, we committed to holding this hackathon to roll them out,” says Kushner. “The intent is to encourage a better understanding of climate change impacts on different domains of application in an atmosphere of fun engagement and community cohort building.”

First prize was awarded to a team that tackled the cooling centre challenge. Using the downscaling tool, the team made detailed projections using temperature and humidity data. They considered vulnerable groups including children, the elderly, refugees, the underhoused; and they factored in education and income levels.

After surveying the current locations of the city’s cooling centres, the team came up with recommendations for six new centres located in areas previously underserved.

“We were very pleased and impressed at how far the student participants got in their analysis,” says Kushner. “How they creatively overcame technical and conceptual obstacles, and how they maintained a constructive and positive attitude as they grappled with the serious issues of climate change.”