Climate change research propelled by PUL's geospatial resources

Map of the world

What will it take for the U.S. to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050? How can steel plants transition from coal power to renewable energy? To what extent do rising sea-levels affect housing prices? 

Researchers across campus are utilizing Princeton University Library (PUL)’s Maps and Geospatial Information Center to answer these questions. 

Tsering Wangyal Shawa, who leads the center as geographic information systems (GIS) and map librarian, serves as a consultant for faculty, students, and postdoctoral researchers on selecting, structuring, and analyzing geospatial data, often essential to environmental research.

In spring 2020, Shawa advised researchers at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment (Andlinger Center) contributing to the Net-Zero America Project, co-led by Eric Larson, senior research engineer, Jesse Jenkins, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, and Chris Greig, former visiting fellow at the Andlinger Center and now the Theodora D. ’78 and William H. Walton III ’74 Senior Research Scientist. The project seeks to understand the viability of achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the U.S. by 2050, motivated by political discourse surrounding the Green New Deal congressional proposal in 2019. 

This U.S.-focused initiative contributes to a larger global research collaboration called Rapid Switch, which investigates the bottlenecks and constraints in the global energy system that collectively impede the pace of decarbonization. 

Shawa worked with the Net-Zero America Project team to understand their goals and data needs in determining land suitability for developing energy plants such as wind turbines and solar panels. 

Andrew Pascale, a postdoctoral research associate at the Andlinger Center, focuses on a piece of this multidisciplinary puzzle: how to maintain the output of traditionally high-carbon U.S. industries, such as steel and cement, while transitioning to a net-zero emissions economy. 

“We have to figure out what it would take on the ground, if we could actually transition, and at what pace,” Pascale said.   

At the more granular level, Pascale and colleagues are analyzing various datasets, including FEMA’s flood plain, elevation, soil, roads, power lines, carbon dioxide storage basins, and land-use data, to determine where to place infrastructure that could transmit renewable and low-carbon energy to end users, while utilizing or storing hard-to-avoid industrial process emissions.

“I’m new to the GIS world, so Shawa has been indispensable,” Pascale commented. “It’s impossible to do this sort of work without the library's resources.”

Their analysis accounted for precious land areas such as national forests, prime farmland, and wetlands. In some scenarios, Pascale explained, the transition to a net-zero emissions energy system may only be possible by impinging on previously protected lands.

The project team aims to release a white paper and media packet this fall to help inform policy making on climate change mitigation. Academic articles will follow. 

PUL’s geospatial resources also support the next generation of researchers and their understanding of the changing climate’s effects on the economy. 

Luke Crimmins, a junior economics major and Rhode Island native, was inspired to study the effects of rising sea-levels on housing prices along the coastline of New England after taking an environmental economics course in fall 2019 taught by Smita B. Brunnermeier, lecturer of economics and public and international affairs at the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment

For his junior paper, Crimmins gathered data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Redfin, a real estate site with housing prices. He quickly realized the challenge in merging NOAA’s maps with financial numbers. 

Shawa helped Crimmins use geospatial software to overlay housing prices onto the map data and isolate properties within a half mile to the water to determine how changes in sea-level elevation affect property values.

“My paper wouldn’t be where it is if I hadn’t met with [Shawa],” said Crimmins. 

In addition to one-on-one consultations, Shawa helps researchers locate maps and geospatial datasets that can be difficult to find and acquire, and at times, requiring years of international negotiations. Shawa’s efforts to secure unique and quality datasets has enabled PUL to become a geospatial data leader in the library community.

At one point, Shawa discovered a problem with data purchased from a commercial company. After informing the company, they invited him to their headquarters to help fix the problem.  

“Many libraries will buy the data and assume it’s good,” explained Shawa. “For me, it’s important to look at sample data as much as possible before the purchase, understand the data quality and document it, because the data we purchase will stay here for maybe centuries.”

Researchers across campus can request PUL to purchase datasets that could propel their work.

For Pascale, these resources make all the difference: “Academic work would grind to a halt without the library.”

Written by Emily Judd, Communications Coordinator

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications