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Thomas Thelen

Graduate Student | Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering | North Carolina State University

2023 – 2024 Global Change Research Fellow

Statement of purpose:

I am working toward my PhD in Civil Engineering, specializing in coastal engineering. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was captivated by the dynamic nature of coastal engineering, a subset of civil engineering where each one-of-a-kind problem requires an equally unique solution that cannot be found in a manual. Through undergraduate research and internship experiences, I honed in on the role that sea-level rise will play in shaping our coasts over the next few decades as my area of study.

Through interactions between academic, community, and governmental partners, I want to contribute to a future where a scientific understanding of the human-natural coastal system helps mitigate climate change impacts. After I finish my graduate program, I want to work where I can impact others for the better by sharing my coastal engineering research findings directly with the communities that benefit most from them. This role could be in government, academia, or consulting, provided the career path includes the opportunity to interface with stakeholders affected by my work. In short, I am driven to use my experiences as a graduate student and a Global Change Research Fellow to inform adaptation solutions and policies that will help our coastal communities thrive over the next century.

Description of research:

As sea levels continue to rise, flooding that occurs outside of extreme events like hurricanes increasingly impacts individuals, land, and livelihoods located near the coast. Recent estimates indicate that up to 3 million people in the continental US alone will occupy land at risk of inundation in the next 50 years. “Sunny-day” flooding of land and roadways can occur during high tides when water overtops shorelines or bubbles up through storm drains. Stormwater infrastructure that was built for the sea levels of previous decades is now underwater at even low tidal levels, leading to flash floods from everyday rainstorms because runoff has nowhere to drain.

We know that floods due to sea-level rise are happening in low-lying coastal areas globally. However, the causes and frequency of these recurrent floods are not well understood, nor are their impacts to people and communities – partly because flooding induced by large storm events like hurricanes receives more attention and partly because these hyper-local, multi-driver floods are difficult to monitor and predict. To fill this data gap, our group has designed novel sensors that track real-time water levels at flooding hotspots. My current work includes creating a coupled numerical model of chronic flooding, validated by data from our sensors. Stakeholders and local governments have requested this model to simulate future flooding risk and adaptation strategies. This framework will be used to conduct community-engaged modeling in which local knowledge of flood prevention strategies is incorporated into our physics-based model. Model results will provide insight into the flood-prevention efficacy of adaptation measures preferred by the community at both current and future sea levels.

Contact Information:


Faculty Advisor:

Katherine Anarde (Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, NCSU)