Sustainability and Resilience Efforts Driven by Large Data Sets

One hundred years of microclimate data can be crunched to inform a variety of stakeholders about potential climate impacts.

Developing plans to address the effects of climate change including epic storms, fierce wildfires, devastating droughts, rising sea levels, and extreme temperatures depends on something much less dramatic: data. One hundred years of microclimate data can be crunched to inform a variety of stakeholders about potential climate impacts on communities and properties.

When South Carolina was hit with a series of large-scale flood events in 2015, 2016 and 2018, local communities managed the emergencies with a variety of resources. Now, the first statewide resilience plan is being written.

“The first step is to collect as much data as we can to assess the vulnerability of every part of the state, and then we’ll share that information with local jurisdictions,” said Bradley Craig, a hydrologist with the South Carolina Office of Resilience. “Our focus now is on flooding, but we’ll expand to other hazards in the future.”

In South Carolina, data is collected and analyzed on environmental issues, infrastructure, emergency services, and every type of property from homes to offices, retail sites, hospitals, and schools.

“Once the vulnerability assessment is complete, we’ll work with a variety of state agencies and a legislatively mandated advisory committee to generate recommendations for local jurisdictions around infrastructure, community resources, building codes, and zoning regulations,” said Hope Warren, a resilience planner with the South Carolina Office of Resilience.

Data for Vulnerability Assessments

In Miami’s nearby Broward County, Fla., global climate data has been used since at least the early 2000s to assess the risks of sea-level rise, ground-water-table rise, coastal and inland flooding, and heavier rainfall, said Jennifer Jurado, chief resilience officer for Broward County.

Overhead shot of Ft Lauderdale, Broward County, FL

Courtesy of Broward County

“Data is the foundation for resilience, and we work across agencies as part of our planning, design, and budgeting services,” said Jurado. “We coordinate with municipalities and private sector businesses to address economic risk, infrastructure needs, and investment requirements.”

Both South Carolina and Broward County rely on data from a variety of sources including First Street Foundation, which provides a variety of tools to make climate data more accessible to a variety of stakeholders, including Flood Factor and Risk Factor tools available to consumers on an individual property basis.

A map of the US showing flood, heat, and fire factors

Photo courtesy of First Street Foundation

In South Florida, four counties collaborate to develop unified tools and regulations to address sea-level rise and other issues.

“Big data is integral to any resilience plan,” said Craig. “You have to know where people are, where the infrastructure is, and various buildings and services that are essential to people’s lives such as schools and hospitals.”

The abundance of data and the technologically sophisticated modeling tools available today make vulnerability assessments easier.

While flood inundation maps are not new, the abundance of data and the technologically sophisticated modeling tools available today make vulnerability assessments easier.

“Sometimes data is so big we can’t manage it,” said Jurado. “The question is how to set up a system that can be queried so that the information can be digested, visualized and communicated easily.”

Broward County has a public tool that can be used to assess risk on a site-by-site basis.

“Our maps and charts can be viewed across ZIP Codes and municipalities, and by real estate values to identify vulnerable populations,” said Jurado. “For example, commissioners can look at their own district to connect more personally with the resilience challenges there to prioritize solutions for locations with the most risk exposure and that are the most economically challenged.”

Downscaling Big Data

While big data is essential to analyze broad scale impacts from climate change, it’s also important to downscale the data to the individual property level, said Howard Botts, executive leader of the science and analytics center of excellence at CoreLogic, a property data provider.

A map of the US showing areas with most risk exposure to fires

Graphic courtesy of First Street

A map of the US showing areas with most risk exposure to floods

Graphic courtesy of First Street

“First you can identify the risks, then you can narrow the focus to a smaller model such as one square mile for floods or a larger footprint for drought, then you need to match that with structure of individual homes and buildings,” said Botts. “Our data can look at the building codes that are in effect and individual roof types, for example, to evaluate their vulnerability to a wind event.”

ATTOM also provides individual property-level risk assessments, said Rick Sharga, executive vice president of market intelligence for ATTOM Data Solutions, a property data provider.

Farmers standing on empty field affected by drought

Courtesy of USDA. Photo by Preston Keres

“We take environmental data from government agencies and use models from a variety of sources that describe potential ways risks can change over the next several years and decades,” said Dr. Ed Kearns, chief data officer for First Street Foundation, a nonprofit provider of environmental data. “Then we pinpoint this information using property records to generate maps and models that show the risk of floods, not just on a specific footprint or property, but to the level of which corner of a building is most at risk.”

The Risk Factor and Flood Factor scores provide education to users about the current risk for a specific property.

The Risk Factor and Flood Factor scores produced by First Street, which assess fire, extreme heat, and flood risks, provide education to users about the current risk for a specific property now and whether that risk is likely to increase or decrease in the future.

“The goal is to make people aware of the steps that they may need to take such as modifying their home or business, or buying more insurance,” said Kearns. “Since they are free to consumers, our tools democratize access to information that insurance companies often already have.”

Climate Check, which analyzes data on risks from wildfires, extreme heat, excessive precipitation, drought, wind damage, and floods, also provides their information free to consumers. Each peril also has subcategories, said Cal Inman, principal of Climate Check, such as rising sea levels, inland flooding, and storm surge in the flood category. The risk assessments include an analysis for today as well as future levels according to climate change models.

Climate Check plans to publish a web page of risk assessment for every city in the United States.

“We look at the average of multiple models for a consensus view of climate change and review different scenarios to identify risks,” said Annie Preston, a data and visualization specialist at Climate Check. “Our data can be used to identify solutions for individual property owners, such as choosing permeable pavers to reduce exposure to flood risk or to take steps to protect their property from wildfires.”

In South Carolina, the statewide vulnerability assessment will provide context for resilience efforts and to engage with local leaders on local initiatives based on local data.

Overhead shot showing a flooded neighborhood

Courtesy of SC Office of Resilience

Climate Data End Users Now and in the Future

While intuitively it might seem natural for insurance companies, lenders, appraisers, and government agencies to use big data and climate modeling for decision making, that has yet to become widespread.

“I’d like to blame the government and other stakeholders for being asleep at the wheel, but they haven’t had a car to drive until recently,” said Sharga. “We have property data going back 100 years, but it’s only recently that the data became more readily available.”

Eventually, climate data will be mandatory for all types of risk assessments by insurance companies, lenders, and city planners.

“The primary market for climate-risk modeling now is federal government regulatory agencies, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who are trying to understand their portfolio risk due to climate change,” said Botts.

Government agencies such as HUD, the Federal Reserve Banks, and the Federal Housing Finance Administration use First Street Foundation’s data. Kearns hopes that First Street’s data will be used by government agencies to help direct funds earmarked for climate mitigation and infrastructure improvements. “We also have a variety of corporate users such as real estate brokerages and banks who pay for our data,” he said.

“Besides consumers and real estate agents, our data is used by real estate investors for analytics, due diligence, and portfolio analysis,” said Inman. “These investors are looking ahead 10 to 40 years to evaluate future property values.”

US maps showing chances for cooler, wetter, drier than average September (click on the image to enlarge it).

Courtesy of NOAA

Insurance companies don’t typically look at long-term climate risk because they adjust their premiums annually.

Some jurisdictions already use climate risk data. “We’re in the infancy of trying to understand the value of all this climate data,” said Botts. “But some places are already using it. For instance, in New York they raised subway entrances a few feet after Hurricane Sandy so there would be less flooding. In other places, they’re elevating roads as a natural protection against floods.”

“The use of climate data isn’t as widespread for planning purposes as you might think,” said Sharga. “For example, even though there are clearly drought issues in the West, not all municipalities or developers are using the available data to decide whether to add 1,000 houses in a location that’s already seeing a water shortage.”

Resilience Planning With the Help of Big Data

In Broward County, an actively managed flood control system is being enhanced with climate models that show the impact of sea-level rise and ground-level-water-table rise, said Jurado. For now, the information doesn’t integrate the effect of adaptations being made and how they could mitigate the effects of climate change.

Data will be pivotal to establish priorities.

“We’re working on a multiyear resilience plan focused on government efforts and infrastructure funding and evaluating what we can achieve with things like stormwater management,” said Jurado. “Data will be pivotal to establish priorities, such as identifying locations where a levee is important.”

Jurado anticipates that the next steps for resilience planning will involve larger commercial property owners and eventually individual property owners.

“We use climate data four ways: to anticipate events such as floods and where they may occur, to determine how to absorb stormwater during an event, for recovery purposes such as knowing where to deploy emergency services, and to thrive after an event,” said Warren in South Carolina.

The “thrive” category of data use will help South Carolina’s Office of Resilience make recommendations for local jurisdictions to catalog resources so they know what to protect and to improve infrastructure before another event occurs.

Mitigating Climate Risk

Data can also help municipalities, companies, and individuals reduce their carbon emissions. Dynamhex, a provider of energy consumption data, started in 2018 to estimate carbon emissions sources in Kansas City, Mo., based on property, flight, and traffic records as well as climate information. Now they have expanded to multiple cities and include information on potential solutions.

“Individual property owners, both commercial and residential, can enter their address to find out about energy efficient upgrades they can make based on their climate zone,” said Dynamhex CEO Sunny Sanwar. “We have data on any structure that pays taxes. The owners can click on our site to find out what their emissions are today, and then an algorithm shows them what the change in emissions will be if they make improvements such as adding solar panels or switching to a heat pump.”

Property owners can check the site for utility company and government rebates for energy efficient improvements.

“Local jurisdictions can use the data to proactively look for candidates for upgrades and to consider community investments in solar power or geothermal heating and cooling,” said Sanwar. “Our data helps these jurisdictions identify the specific outcomes for various projects to prioritize things like wind turbines versus community solar.”

Sustainability and Real Estate Transactions

The topic of sustainability is becoming more prevalent in the real estate market, said Sidnee Holmes, a research associate at the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (NAR), who helped research the 2022 REALTORS® and Sustainability Report for NAR.

“Our research deconstructs the aspects of sustainability in real estate in which members have understanding, while also providing insight into areas where REALTORS® need more sustainability knowledge,” said Holmes. “The data that is made available to REALTORS® is utilized to boost brokerage support for sustainable and resilient initiatives that encourage overall brokerage understanding of climate risk and commercial and residential sustainability.”

Real estate agents can find CoreLogic’s property-level data in about 80 percent of MLS systems. In addition, about 70 percent of appraisers have access to the data. Climate Check and First Street’s information can also be found on numerous listing sites as well as their own sites.

“The data can show if a property has been damaged by hail in the past 10 years, so the roof may need a closer inspection,” said Botts. “Flood risk scores can show you the relative risk for a property, not just whether you’re in or out of the federal flood zone maps.”

On the other hand, Sharga acknowledged, this is uncharted territory and climate risk could ultimately impact long-term home appreciation and increase affordability in high-risk areas if prices plummet there.

Sharga anticipates a gradual adoption of climate reports by homebuyers and sellers that will increase in the future. “Ultimately, the whole housing ecosystem will need to rely on climate risk data,” he said.


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A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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