By Kristin Agostoni, Assistant Director of Communications and Media Relations, Loyola Marymount University
Climate change, environmental issues and socio-economics compel Loyola Marymount University (LMU) professor Jeremy Pal’s research, including the studies that he conducts with his undergraduate and graduate students.
Pal traces his interest in environmental science and engineering to a community college course taught by a part-time instructor who doubled as a local lifeguard.
Pal had been reluctant to enroll in Santa Monica College after high school and didn’t have a clear path forward, but that human ecology class helped to give him direction; he was moved by his instructor’s descriptions of high cancer incidents among Santa Monica Bay lifeguards, and speculation that pesticides dumped off the coastline decades earlier were to blame.
“That was really eye-opening,” says Pal, a professor of civil engineering and environmental science in LMU’s Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering. “That kind of inspired me and got my grades up.”
Pal eventually transferred to LMU, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1994. He later earned Master’s and Doctoral degrees in environmental engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He went on to work as a research scientist for an international agency in Italy, and became a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
Since joining LMU’s faculty in 2006, Pal has authored groundbreaking studies focused on understanding climate change and its many impacts around the world – a passion that aligns with LMU’s Jesuit traditions and core value of promoting a culture where faculty and students apply their knowledge and skills to help others, including the poor and vulnerable.
Several of these studies have received widespread media interest, including a recent article that Pal co-authored in the August edition of Science Advances magazine concerning climate change in the densely populated agriculture regions of South Asia. With co-authors Elfatih Eltahir, Sc.D., of MIT, and Eun-Soon Im, Ph.D., of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Pal offers critical projections about human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in Pakistan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – together, home to roughly one-fifth of the global human population.
If these emissions continue at the current levels, the researchers predict that by the end of the 21st century (2071-2100), conditions are likely to approach, and in some locations exceed, a human survivability threshold based on a combined measure of air temperature and humidity. According to the research, a few hours of exposure to this so-called “wet-bulb temperature” of 95 F (or 35 C) – considered an upper limit on human survivability that is equivalent to a heat index of about 160 F – would result in death for even the fittest of humans in shaded, well-ventilated conditions.
“Without significant mitigation, some of the most severe hazards of climate change will impact some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, those who work outdoors in sectors such as agriculture as well as those who do not have access to air-conditioning,” Pal explains.
He conducted previous research with Eltahir – funded by the government of Kuwait – that made similar predictions for rising intolerable heat in the Persian/Arabian Gulf region. But the results of the South Asia study have helped to shine a light on the vulnerability of the affected populations.
Pal says that the team considered three metrics when considering which area would be the focus of their second study on rising temperatures and global warming: population density, outdoor working conditions and per capita gross domestic product (GPD) – an indicator of a country’s vulnerability. Mixed together, Pal saw a particular vulnerability in South Asia.
“A lot of the climate change community has shifted to place more emphasis on adaptation,” he explains. “You can do things like construct seawalls, white or green rooftops, and reflective asphalt to make our cities and communities more resilient. But that’s not thinking about things in a global perspective, because the wealthier nations can adapt. Regions like South Asia, Africa and South America don’t really have the means to adapt.”
Pal’s hope is that the team’s research will eventually spark discussions about policy changes that could help to mitigate human-caused emissions. The team’s results are based on a “business-as-usual” scenario – what would happen if nothing changed – but the researchers are hopeful. Pal says, “We showed in both of those studies (concerning the Persian Gulf region and South Asia) that in doing something about climate change … these regions really stand to benefit."
Upcoming research will focus on similar studies in other vulnerable regions, including the impact of severe storms on low-income areas in the United States; how climate change is affecting U.S. ski resorts; and Los Angeles County’s resilience to changes in frequent storms and flooding.
Pal’s hope for his students is that they will follow their passions, whether working in the fields of civil or environmental engineering, pursuing a doctoral degree, or ultimately choosing another path.
“Here (at LMU) I really excelled with the help of the professors. The way of the Jesuit education system really helped me quite profoundly,” Pal says. “My goal of returning here as a professor was to help students maximize their potential and overcome barriers to success. That’s what I really try to do.”