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Adapting to Meet New Challenges

Adaptation is essential to any species’ survival. Some animals change their coloring to blend with their environment. Others migrate to find more favorable climates as environmental conditions change.

Humans are no different—we too need to adapt to external stressors such as climate change, urbanization, evolution of technology or resource scarcity. We must enhance our adaptive capabilities to be better prepared to understand, respond to, and/or mitigate the pressures of constantly evolving global demands.

Climate change, continued sea level rise and overpopulation require the adaptation of infrastructure to ensure its continued safe, reliable and economic operation now and in the future. Understanding how natural systems adapt in a changing human environment will help us understand how to live sustainably. Understanding resiliency of cities to evolving environments will inform decision-makers regarding where and how to optimally adapt in the short term (to specific events or hazards) and the long term (lifetime).

Adapting transportation infrastructure to facilitate the deployment of automated vehicles will transform future mobility systems. This fundamental need for adaptive resilience can only be met through the development of new models, theories, technologies and materials that bring a multidisciplinary and systems-level perspective to engineering.

The need to understand the adaptation of the systems on which we depend will transform engineering education. Modeling of engineering problems that rely on solitary principles will be replaced by an encompassing view of systems where interconnectedness and multidisciplinarity are central.

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What is adaptation?

Antoine E. Naaman Collegiate Professor Sherif El-Tawil dives into the concept of adaptation and what it means for civil and environmental engineers.

  • 2,700

    In 2017, floods in South Asia killed 2,700 people.

  • $324 billion

    Between 2017 and 2018, natural hazards in the United States caused $324 billion in losses.

  • 20cm

    In the last century, global sea levels have risen 25cm, including more than 7cm in the last 25 years.

Our Approach

Our strategic directions have a broad impact on the way we operate, influencing our approach to research, education and outreach. Explore some examples of how we are implementing the concept of Adaptation across our department.


  1. Modeling Floods

    Flooding in densely populated areas has remained the costliest natural hazard of all weather-related events in terms of fatalities and material costs. Past events are clear harbingers of what is yet to come: estimates indicate that the number of people residing in the flow path of high-risk floods will double (from one to two billion) within two generations. CEE researchers are developing new computational methods to characterize floods at high resolution and quantify uncertainty in order to better understand and predict floods.

  2. Data Is Life

    The Amazon rainforests are highly biodiverse and play a critical role in global water, energy and carbon cycles. With no general consensus over rainforest vulnerability to the increasing drought frequency in the 22 region, CEE researchers traveled to the Amazon to collect data on how trees respond to global climate changes.

  3. Engineered Naturally

    Fish passage is an integral part of the civil infrastructure and energy grid. For too long, fish ladders were designed only with engineering constraints in mind, and biological consequences were ignored. Now, to help render our infrastructure sustainable, engineers are working with biologists and ecologists to better understand and quantify the interplay between fish species and flow conditions within these structures, leading to a “natural” design of fish ladders.

  4. Dynamic Adaptation

    Humans dynamically adapt to their evolving surroundings. This fundamental aspect of humanity is crucial to the successful long-term understanding and estimation of the resilience of communities to major natural hazards. Our researchers are enabling a new understanding of the ability of societies to respond to natural disasters and adapt to major perturbations by investigating community-level resiliency, which involves not only infrastructure resiliency, but also a human-centric dynamic adaptation assessment at the community level.

  5. Next-gen Resilience Modeling

    Extreme natural hazards, such as severe earthquakes and hurricanes, are among the most destructive forces to impact the built environment. Long-term adaptation of communities to such destructive forces requires the estimation of their resilience. Our researchers are developing a new generation of computational tools and models that will enable optimal strategies for supporting community resiliency to extreme natural hazards.

  6. Inspired by Origami

    University of Michigan researchers are exploring origami-inspired structures that can morph into multiple new geometries to adapt their orientation, physical characteristics and function. Building components with multiple stable states could retrofit and adapt structures for ever-changing design requirements. Large-scale reconfigurable and deployable structures such as sea walls, bridges and shelters could be shared within a community and be used to reduce the impacts of natural disasters, and expedite recovery after the event.


Undergraduate and Graduate Courses

In courses such as “Performance-Based Earthquake Engineering,” “Greenhouse Gas Control,” “Hydrology and Floodplain Hydraulics,” and others, advanced undergraduate and graduate students delve into techniques and policy options for addressing topics such as greenhouse gas reduction, sediment transport, and dimensional analysis, while also learning about the construction of apparatuses including culverts, storm channels, earthquake-resistant buildings, and flow and wave gauges.


The Warming Arctic

The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History acts as a public face of current research on campus. An exhibit in their “People and Planet” gallery introduced the public to CEE research that explores what the warming Arctic can tell us about climate change.

Virtual Reality Disaster Simulation

Describing the results of disaster research to the public is challenging. As such, risk awareness is low in many vulnerable communities, which leads to poor disaster preparedness and low community resilience. CEE researchers are developing highly realistic, science-based hazard simulations using virtual reality technology to better convey key messages about disasters and encourage preparedness and disaster planning.


How to make sure Biden’s infrastructure plan can hold up to climate change – and save money

In The Conversation, Jeremy Bricker writes that adaptive design techniques would be a cost-efficient way to face an uncertain future under climate change.

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  1. Alternative sample text

    Bendable concrete and other CO2-infused cement mixes could dramatically cut global emissions

    In The Conversation, experts break down what’s needed to make CO2 in concrete work on a wide scale to curb global emissions.

    Read More
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    Podcast: Remaking water infrastructure

    In S1E2, harnessing waterborne microbes for data and health.

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    Sherif El-Tawil wins ASCE Wellington Prize

    The award recognizes outstanding papers in transportation engineering.

    Read More
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Featured Faculty

Valeriy Ivanov

Valeriy Ivanov

Modeling Floods, Data Is Life, Undergraduate and Graduate Courses, The Warming Arctic


(734) 763-5068

Aline Cotel

Aline Cotel

Engineered Naturally


(734) 763-1463

Seymour M.J. Spence

Seymour M.J. Spence

Dynamic Adaptation, Undergraduate and Graduate Courses


(734) 764-8419

Sherif El-Tawil

Sherif El-Tawil

Human-in-the-loop Design, Next-gen Resilience Modeling, Virtual Reality Disaster Simulation


(734) 764-5617

Evgueni Filipov

Evgueni Filipov

Inspired by Origami


(734) 764-8339

Christian M. Lastoskie

Christian M. Lastoskie

Undergraduate and Graduate Courses


(734) 647-7940

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Adaptation on Twitter

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