Scott Collis of the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory speaks during a tour of the new Chicago State "supersite" for climate research on July 18. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

ROSELAND — A hub for climate change research is coming to the South Side as scientists work to help Chicagoans better prepare their communities for the impacts of extreme weather.

Chicago State University will host a five-year program to study how climate change is impacting Chicago and model its potential impacts over the next few decades, researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the university announced this week.

The project got underway Tuesday at Chicago State as scientists unveiled equipment to measure air, weather, rain and soil conditions in three unique environments on campus: in a prairie, on a building and in an open field.

The data collected will let scientists better understand the different climates in Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods and the unique climate change solutions each community will need, said Cristina Negri, environmental science director at Argonne Laboratory.

“It’s trying to look at how we can bring about … what [neighbors] would like for their communities to be in 10 years or so,” Negri said. “How can we make that accessible to everyone? How can we design solutions to the climate crisis that are inclusive and pertinent to people’s needs?”

The South Side lab is part of the energy department’s Community Research on Climate and Urban Science, or CROCUS, study.

More than 20 similar arrays of instruments will be placed around Chicago over the next five years through the CROCUS program. Chicago State’s lab is the southernmost one planned — and the second to be launched, after Northeastern Illinois University‘s opened in May.

Researchers gather outside of the prairie-based instrument station on Chicago State University’s campus before a tour of the new Community Research on Climate and Urban Science “supersite” on campus. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

Over the next five years, CROCUS researchers will explore how weather patterns may change over the next 10 to 50 years. They’ll also collect detailed, real-time data on heat islands, flooding, air quality and numerous other aspects of Chicago’s microclimates.

Microclimates are the climates of city blocks, neighborhoods and other small-scale areas. They can be impacted by the number of trees and parks, the amount of concrete, the quality of stormwater infrastructure and other factors in an area.

Scientists and neighbors highlighted Chatham, just north of Chicago State’s home in Roseland, as a microclimate prone to severe flooding.

It’s an interesting case study, as “Chatham does not get any more rainfall than Westmont, than Evanston, than the city of Chicago, but it floods all the time,” said Scott Collis, who works at Argonne’s geospatial computing, innovations and sensing department.

The technology at Chicago State can help researchers learn exactly what makes Chatham so vulnerable to floods. It can also show how using different surfaces, landscapes and plant life could protect the neighborhood against flooding and other forms of extreme weather, Collis said.

The research questions and topics scientists will explore around climate change in each community will be developed using residents’ direct input, he said.

“We are giving [neighbors] the data they need … so they can say, ‘Not only do we need more green infrastructure in our city, but data from CROCUS shows these particular species of plant matter; this size of green infrastructure matters; these kinds of trees are the best trees for our community,'” Collis said.

Standing water pools for half a block at Franklin Boulevard and Homan Avenue in Humboldt Park as flooding continues to trouble Chicago’s West Side after rainfall on July 12, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Some environmental advocates have called on leaders to expand air quality and other monitoring systems in Chicago. Others, like one neighbor at Tuesday’s reveal, said it’s always useful to gather data, but officials also need to act on the plentiful data that exists about the city’s environmental inequities.

The Argonne and Chicago State scientists won’t make policy recommendations or force policymakers to act, Collis said.

Instead, all of the South Side site’s data will be made public, and scientists will commit to creating “plain-language summaries” of the findings, he said. That will help neighbors and community groups advocate for their communities’ unique policy and development needs, he said.

South Siders generally “don’t have the kind of money that we can try experiment A, experiment B [and] experiment C” to address their communities’ climate needs, said Nedra Sims Fears, executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative.

“We need real solutions, so it’s really great to work with Argonne [and] Chicago State … so that we can get it right the first time,” Sims Fears said.

West Woodlawn will also host a community-owned set of instruments, set up through CROCUS in partnership with neighborhood residents, in the near future, Collis said.

Tekleab Gala, an associate professor at Chicago State University and principal investigator for the Community Research on Climate and Urban Science initiative, speaks at the unveiling of Chicago State’s climate research lab on its South Side campus. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

The program will bring $1 million over five years to Chicago State, said Tekleab Gala, associate geomatics professor at the university and principal investigator for CROCUS.

Beyond the wealth of environmental data the South Side “supersite” will create, the funding will also boost the university’s geography program — through which students can also learn climate, environmental, urban and other sciences, Gala said.

Some of the money will go toward scholarships and other financial support for Chicago State students, Gala said. It’s a boon for the students, most of whom are “nontraditional” and must work full-time or otherwise support themselves outside of school, he said.

“When we are financially supporting them, that gave them some belief to focus on their education,” allowing the students to diversify their chosen career fields, Gala said.

The geography program has grown from a recent low of four students to 17 enrolled students as of this week, Gala said. He hopes to stabilize the program with an average of 22 students over the next five years, he said.

Chicago State will provide federal researchers “with an opportunity for science, and they will provide us an opportunity to put our mark on the [climate and environmental science] workforce,” he said.

Help Block Club Get
500 More Subscribers!

Subscribe to Block Club now and you’ll get a free 16-by-20-inch Chicago neighborhood print of your choice, helping us reach our goal of getting 500 more subscribers before 2024. Click here to subscribe or click here to gift a subscription.

Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: