Anyone planning to build a new apartment building in Miami–or Houston, or Boston, or any other city with a growing problem with floods–faces a significant challenge. It’s hard to know if a particular site might be a safe place to build. Most FEMA flood maps are out of date; in 2012, the maps for many of the areas flooded by Sandy hadn’t been updated since 1983. The maps also don’t account for the impacts of climate change, despite the fact that the number of American coastal communities dealing with chronic flooding is expected to double in less than two decades.
A startup called Jupiter is offering developers, insurance companies, city officials, and anyone else who deals with urban planning in coastal cities a new “FloodScore” analysis that attempts to fill that gap. Using multiple models that consider everything from sea level rise and erosion to the impact of paving over wetland, data from satellites and sensors, and machine learning, the service can predict the risk of flooding on a specific block or at a specific address. It can also predict the risk of exposure to hazardous waste from nearby industry during a flood, as happened during Hurricane Harvey when containers at a chemical plant caught fire and exploded.
“What we’re hearing from property developers is that they think this will impact their long-term insurance costs, the marketability of the property to existing and potential tenants, their capital investment in mitigation, their relationships with capital partners like sovereign wealth funds–the largest of which are increasingly focused on this issue–and a whole set of other issues,” says Jupiter CEO and co-founder Rich Sorkin.
The startup is building a suite of services on a platform that considers multiple risks from climate change. The FloodScore service calculates the risk of flooding both in the short-term–from two hours in advance to a few days–and decades in the future for longer-term planning. A “HeatScore” analysis looks at the risk of heat waves, something that’s particularly useful for city departments dealing with public health and safety. In Miami, for example, “it’s hot, and getting hotter, and there’s a significant portion of the population that can’t afford things like air conditioning,” Sorkin says. Electric utilities will also be able to use the tool to predict when power demand will surge, and when high temperatures might affect transmission equipment. A third tool, which will soon launch, looks at the risk of fire.
The data wasn’t readily available in the past. Reports from the IPCC, the UN climate panel of thousands of scientists, come out every five to seven years, and focus on global risks, not what might happen at an individual property. Even short-term predictions of the risk of flooding in an upcoming hurricane aren’t available in most locations now. “That kind of alert system just doesn’t exist on a widespread basis in the vast majority of the world,” says Sorkin. The Jupiter team, which now includes some of the climate scientists that contributed to IPCC reports, built a system for New York Harbor that is now in use by local government and wants to expand a more detailed version around the rest of the world.
FloodScore will initially be available in Charleston, New York City, Miami and South Florida, Norfolk, Los Angeles, Boston, Orlando, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Houston, Atlanta, and Charlotte in 2018, before expanding internationally; HeatScore will initially be available on the U.S. Atlantic Coast, focused around New York City. At a later point, the company may begin working in less-developed countries. “Probably the next thing that we would do is partner with NGOs to deploy these solutions in parts of the world where there are dramatic health and safety issues, where countries are not sufficiently developed to implement this themselves,” Sorkin says. “We think that’s a really important problem.”