It’s time to ditch the historical “100-year flood” model in infrastructure planning in favour of more dynamic tools that account for climate change and other variables, according to Western’s Slobodon Simonovic, who has just been named one of the world’s 1,000 most influential climate scientists.
Simonovic is an engineering professor emeritus who specializes in water resource management and flood prevention.
He said that predicting future flood risks by looking back on previous patterns – such as the probability of a flood occurring in any given year, a metric known as the 100-year flood risk – has simply become too imprecise.
Simonovic said he was surprised to learn he had cracked the Reuters Hot List of climate-science influencers – a list that identifies scientists whose work is shaping the conversation among other researchers, the public, activists and political leaders. The rankings are based on the volume of research papers, citations by other scientists and their reach in policy papers, the mainstream media and on social media.
“We rarely have a very clear indication of how far our work reaches and what its impact is,” he said. “So I think this Reuters list is one way of learning how far and how widespread is the interest in the work that my group is doing.”
Simonovic began his work at Western in 1999, when scientists were just starting to flag the relationship between climate change and the rising incidence and severity of flooding.
“It was not as politicized then as it is now,” he recalled. “But the issue was definitely surfacing.”
He has since become a leading research voice on the flooding resilience and vulnerabilities of infrastructure such as pipes, floodways, roads, homes and sewage plants.
“Up to now, we were prescribing standards like the level of protection (needed) in a 100-year flood and saying okay, I would like to build a dike that will provide this level of protection,” he said. “But we need to look at this question in a different way.”
Conditions are changing rapidly, with interdependent variables that include not just more extreme weather but higher urban density, deforestation and, in some cases, more people and property located in areas vulnerable to flooding.
That means a more systematic approach to water resource management is needed, Simonovic said.
Director of engineering studies with the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, Simonovic has received awards for excellence in teaching, research and outreach. He has published more than 550 professional papers and three textbooks, was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2020 and was inducted into the Canadian Academy of Engineering in 2013. He is one of 37 Canadians on the Reuters list of most influential climate scientists.
Simonovic’s team has created a web-based tool that incorporates climate modelling – reflecting more frequent and extreme precipitation, for example – on infrastructure design and management in Canada. It has about 3,500 active users, including municipalities, conservation authorities, developers, engineers and consultants.
His lab’s Water Resources Research reports are published online through Scholarship@Western and have been downloaded more than 100,000 times in the past decade, from as far afield as Poland, India and Papua New Guinea.
Simonovic’s activities today, beyond continued research, include speaking with community groups as small as 40 people and at conferences with professional engineers numbering in the thousands.
He is also organizing the International Conference on Flood Management, a gathering of hydrological and structural engineers, social scientists, planners, lawyers and natural scientists.