The Engineer's Impact - M. Reza Najafi

Your inside look at faculty’s research and its effect on society

In this new Q&A series, we’ll feature Western Engineering faculty members to gain a succinct overview of their research, understand its impact on society, and discover intriguing little-known facts.

Meet Civil and Environmental Engineering Associate Professor M. Reza Najafi

Can you describe your research?

My research team focuses on understanding and predicting extreme weather events like floods and droughts and how they might change in the future due to climate change. We develop different types of models to do this, including statistical models and process-based models. By understanding the factors that contribute to these Dr Najafiextreme events, like human activity and natural climate variations, we can better predict the risks associated with them. We also study how these hazards interact with infrastructure systems like bridges and roads, and how these interactions can create even more severe consequences. For example, if a flood damages a bridge, it may not only impact the people and property immediately surrounding the bridge, but it can also have ripple effects throughout the entire transportation network. Our interdisciplinary research contributes to the assessment of climate change impacts on floods and droughts, including developing better tools and methods for predicting these events and identifying ways to reduce their impact. We also work on improving the communication of these risks to help communities and policymakers make informed decisions. By understanding the impacts of climate change on our water resources and infrastructure, we can take steps to mitigate these risks and protect our communities.

How does your research impact society in everyday life?

Our research has significant implications for society in everyday life. Historically, water resources engineering has assumed that the climate is stationary, meaning that the likelihood of extreme weather events remains the same over time. However, we now know that this is no longer the case due to human influence on the climate. As a result, we are experiencing more frequent and intense extreme events like heat waves, droughts, and severe rainfall. Our research helps to understand the historical behaviour of these extremes and how they might change in the future under different scenarios. By determining the likelihood and severity of these events, we can develop effective mitigation and adaptation strategies to reduce their impact on society. For example, we can use our findings to design better water management systems that can cope with more frequent droughts or more extreme rainfall events. Moreover, our research can inform policies and practices to ensure public safety, such as emergency management plans, infrastructure design standards, and land-use regulations. By understanding the impact of climate change on water resources and infrastructure, we can take steps to protect our communities and build more resilient societies. In short, our research has the potential to make a real-world impact on society by informing decisions that help to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. 

What’s an interesting, little-known fact related to your research?

While extreme weather events like floods and droughts have been studied for some time, there's still much to learn about how these events can compound with one another. For example, a drought can lead to dry soil and vegetation, which can then increase the risk of wildfires. In turn, wildfires can burn vegetation that helps to absorb rainfall, making the land more prone to flooding during heavy rainfall events. Similarly, coastal areas can be hit by compound flooding, which occurs when rising sea levels, storm surges, and heavy rainfall combine to create flooding in low-lying coastal areas. Despite being an important topic, traditional approaches have tended to analyze each hazard in isolation, which can lead to a significant underestimation of the associated risks. However, in recent years, there has been growing recognition of the importance of studying compound events and developing methods to quantify and mitigate their risks. Our interdisciplinary research group is at the forefront of this area, using advanced statistical and process-based models to understand and predict the impacts of compound events on infrastructure systems and society.