Julie Eaton Ernst Examines Climate Resiliency at Inaugural Francis Lecture on Built Environment

A woman gestures with her hands while speaking into a microphone to people in a room Image by Ed Brennen
Civil and environmental engineering alum Julie Eaton Ernst '14, '17 talks about her climate resilience work during the inaugural James B. Francis Lecture on the Built Environment.

By Ed Brennen

On the same day that Hurricane Ian slammed southwest Florida, causing catastrophic flooding and deadly destruction, UMass Lowell students learned about the work of a recent alum to help protect Boston from storm surges and rising sea levels.

Civil and environmental engineering alum Julie Eaton Ernst ’14, ’17, a resilience team leader at engineering consulting firm Weston & Sampson, returned to campus for the inaugural James B. Francis Lecture on the Built Environment to talk about redesigning South Boston’s Moakley Park to withstand the effects of climate change.

Called “Keeping Boston Above Water: Engineering Solutions Then and Now to Make and Protect Boston’s Waterfront,” the interdisciplinary lecture was sponsored by the Architectural Studies Program and the departments of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and Civil and Environmental Engineering. 

Ernst was joined at Saab ETIC’s Perry Atrium by historian and archaeologist Nancy Seasholes, who has written several books about Boston’s 5,000-plus acres of manmade land that were once marshes and shoreline. 

Four women pose for a photo while standing in front of a window with a dark shade Image by Ed Brennen
From left, EEAS Assoc. Teaching Prof. Lori Weeden, historian Nancy Seasholes, Art and Design Assoc. Prof. Marie Frank and Julie Eaton Ernst were part of the inaugural Francis lecture.
Assoc. Prof. of Art and Design Marie Frank collaborated with Assoc. Teaching Profs. Edward Hajduk (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Lori Weeden (Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences) to create the lecture series.

“We all had a shared interest in the built environment — the impact of manmade structures and objects on the natural environment — and Boston seemed like the ideal topic to investigate these connections, especially in light of climate change,” Frank says.

Francis, namesake of the Francis College of Engineering, was a British-American civil engineer who played a key role in the construction of Lowell’s canal system. To protect the city’s mills from flooding, he ordered the construction of the Great Gate over the Pawtucket Canal in 1850, a project that was initially derided as “Francis’s Folly” — but proved necessary just two years later.

Ernst’s work, which is part of the Resilient Boston Harbor plan, involves modeling climate scenarios to develop strategies for protecting the 64-acre Moakley Park and its adjacent neighborhoods from rising seas. Key to those efforts is the construction of a berm along the park’s waterfront.

Two men in suit jackets smile while talking to a woman Image by Ed Brennen
Engineering Dean James Sherwood, left, and Civil and Environmental Engineering Dept. Chair Pradeep Kurup catch up with Julie Eaton Ernst before her talk.
Boston has already seen its sea level rise by nearly a foot over the last 100 years, Ernst notes, along with more frequent tidal flooding, extreme rainfall events and record heat.  

“There’s a lot of fear around this, but hopefully there’s a ton of opportunities as well,” Ernst told students.

Dan Carley, a junior civil engineering major from Walpole, Massachusetts, was surprised to learn that Boston is the eighth most vulnerable city in the world for damaging floods, according to a study by the World Bank.

“You hear all these stories about rising sea levels, but I didn’t know Boston was at such a high risk,” says Carley, who appreciated the opportunity to hear from an alum like Ernst who is working to protect the city.

William Lefebvre, a sophomore environmental science major from Lancaster, Massachusetts, was encouraged to learn that Boston is seeking long-term solutions to the problem.

A young man wearing a face covering and glasses asks a question while seated with other people Image by Ed Brennen
A student asks alum Julie Eaton Ernst a question about her work.
“When you focus on more natural solutions, maybe returning some of the estuaries in the Boston Harbor area, it really helps to mitigate flooding,” says Lefebvre, a member of the Student Society for Sustainability.

Ernst says the education she got at UML from faculty members such as Assoc. Teaching Prof. Paul DeStefano, Prof. Clifford Bruell, Prof. Samuel Paikowsky, Prof. Emeritus Donald Leitch and Hajduk has been “so applicable” to her career.

“I’m so grateful to the faculty at UMass Lowell for their commitment to my personal growth and education,” she says. “They are dedicated to educating students who are work-ready to transform the natural, built and social environments.”