Quantcast

What Is Climate-Ready Infrastructure? Some Cities Are Starting to Adapt

Climate
Miami is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to raise roads in response to rising sea levels. Matthew Hurst / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Mikhail Chester, Braden Allenby and Samuel Markolf

The most recent international report on climate change paints a picture of disruption to society unless there are drastic and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Although it's early days, some cities and municipalities are starting to recognize that past conditions can no longer serve as reasonable proxies for the future.


This is particularly true for the country's infrastructure. Highways, water treatment facilities and the power grid are at increasing risk to extreme weather events and other effects of a changing climate.

The problem is that most infrastructure projects, including the Trump administration's infrastructure revitalization plan, typically ignore the risks of climate change.

In our work researching sustainability and infrastructure, we encourage and are starting to shift toward designing man-made infrastructure systems with adaptability in mind.

Designing for the Past

Infrastructure systems are the front line of defense against flooding, heat, wildfires, hurricanes and other disasters. City planners and citizens often assume that what is built today will continue to function in the face of these hazards, allowing services to continue and to protect us as they have done so in the past. But these systems are designed based on histories of extreme events.

Pumps, for example, are sized based on historical precipitation events. Transmission lines are designed within limits of how much power they can move while maintaining safe operating conditions relative to air temperatures. Bridges are designed to be able to withstand certain flow rates in the rivers they cross. Infrastructure and the environment are intimately connected.

Now, however, the country is more frequently exceeding these historical conditions and is expected to see more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Said another way, because of climate change, natural systems are now changing faster than infrastructure.

How can infrastructure systems adapt? First let's consider the reasons infrastructure systems fail at extremes:

  • The hazard exceeds design tolerances. This was the case of Interstate 10 flooding in Phoenix in fall 2014, where the intensity of the rainfall exceeded design conditions.
  • During these times there is less extra capacity across the system: When something goes wrong there are fewer options for managing the stressor, such as rerouting flows, whether it's water, electricity or even traffic.
  • We often demand the most from our infrastructure during extreme events, pushing systems at a time when there is little extra capacity.

Gradual change also presents serious problems, partly because there is no distinguishing event that spurs a call to action. This type of situation can be especially troublesome in the context of maintenance backlogs and budget shortfalls which currently plague many infrastructure systems. Will cities and towns be lulled into complacency only to find that their long-lifetime infrastructure systems are no longer operating like they should?

Currently the default seems to be securing funding to build more of what we've had for the past century. But infrastructure managers should take a step back and ask what our infrastructure systems need to do for us into the future.

Agile and Flexible by Design

Fundamentally new approaches are needed to meet the challenges not only of a changing climate, but also of disruptive technologies.

These include increasing integration of information and communication technologies, which raises the risk of cyberattacks. Other emerging technologies include autonomous vehicles and drones as well as intermittent renewable energy and battery storage in the place of conventional power systems. Also, digitally connected technologies fundamentally alter individuals' cognition of the world around us: Consider how our mobile devices can now reroute us in ways that we don't fully understand based on our own travel behavior and traffic across a region.

Yet our current infrastructure design paradigms emphasize large centralized systems intended to last for decades and that can withstand environmental hazards to a preselected level of risk. The problem is that the level of risk is now uncertain because the climate is changing, sometimes in ways that are not very well-understood. As such, extreme events forecasts may be a little or a lot worse.

Given this uncertainty, agility and flexibility should be central to our infrastructure design. In our research, we've seen how a number of cities have adopted principles to advance these goals already, and the benefits they provide.

A "smart" tunnel in Kuala Lumpur is designed to supplement the city's stormwater drainage system. David Boey, CC BY-SA 4.0

In Kuala Lampur, traffic tunnels are able to transition to stormwater management during intense precipitation events, an example of multifunctionality.

Across the U.S., citizen-based smartphone technologies are beginning to provide real-time insights. For instance, the CrowdHydrology project uses flooding data submitted by citizens that the limited conventional sensors cannot collect.

Infrastructure designers and managers in a number of U.S. locations, including New York, Portland, Miami and Southeast Florida, and Chicago are now required to plan for this uncertain future—a process called roadmapping. For example, Miami has developed a $500 million plan to upgrade infrastructure, including installing new pumping capacity and raising roads to protect at-risk oceanfront property.

These competencies align with resilience-based thinking and move the country away from our default approaches of simply building bigger, stronger or more redundant.

Planning for Uncertainty

Because there is now more uncertainty with regard to hazards, resilience instead of risk should be central to infrastructure design and operation in the future. Resilience means systems can withstand extreme weather events and come back into operation quickly.

Microgrid technology allows individual buildings to operate in the event of a broader power outage and is one way to make the electricity system more resilient. Amy Vaughn / U.S. Department of Energy

This means infrastructure planners cannot simply change their design parameter—for example, building to withstand a 1,000-year event instead of a 100-year event. Even if we could accurately predict what these new risk levels should be for the coming century, is it technically, financially or politically feasible to build these more robust systems?

This is why resilience-based approaches are needed that emphasize the capacity to adapt. Conventional approaches emphasize robustness, such as building a levee that is able to withstand a certain amount of sea level rise. These approaches are necessary but given the uncertainty in risk we need other strategies in our arsenal.

For example, providing infrastructure services through alternative means when our primary infrastructure fails, such as deploying microgrids ahead of hurricanes. Or, planners can design infrastructure systems such that when they fail, the consequences to human life and the economy are minimized.

The Netherlands has changed its system of dykes and flood management in certain areas to better sustain flooding.

This is a practice recently implemented in the Netherlands, where the Rhine delta rivers are allowed to flood but people are not allowed to live in the flood plain and farmers are compensated when their crops are lost.

Uncertainty is the new normal, and reliability hinges on positioning infrastructure to operate in and adapt to this uncertainty. If the country continues to commit to building last century's infrastructure, we can continue to expect failures of these critical systems and the losses that come along with them.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

jenifoto / iStock / Getty Images

By Rachael Link, MS, RD

Many people consider granola bars a convenient and healthy snack and enjoy their flavor and versatility.

Read More Show Less
A common green darners (Anax junius). Judy Gallagher / Flickr

By Jason Bittel

It's that time of year again: Right now, monarch butterflies are taking wing in the mountains of northwestern Mexico and starting to flap their way across the United States.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
fstop123 / iStock / Getty Images Plus

At EcoWatch, our team knows that changing personal habits and taking actions that contribute to a better planet is an ongoing journey. Earth Day, happening on April 22, is a great reminder for all of us to learn more about the environmental costs of our behaviors like food waste or fast fashion.

To offer readers some inspiration this Earth Day, our team rounded up their top picks for films to watch. So, sit back and take in one of these documentary films this Earth Day. Maybe it will spark a small change you can make in your own life.

Read More Show Less
JPM / Getty Images

Gluten is the collective name for a group of proteins found in grains like wheat, barley and rye.

Read More Show Less
Denali national park. Domen Jakus / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

By Stephanie Gagnon

Happy National Parks Week! This year, between April 20 and 28, escape to the beautiful national parks — either in person or in your imagination — and celebrate the amazing wildlife that calls these spaces home.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Sesame, three months old, at Seal Rescue Irleand. Screenshot / Seal Rescue Ireland Instagram

On Friday, Seal Rescue Ireland released Sesame the seal into the ocean after five months of rehabilitation at the Seal Rescue Ireland facility. Watch the release on EcoWatch's Facebook.

Read More Show Less
Beer packs of Guinness will now come in a cardboard box. Diageo

By Jordan Davidson

Guinness is joining the fight against single use plastic. The brewer has seen enough hapless turtles and marine life suffering from the scourge of plastic.

Read More Show Less
Maskot / Getty Images

People of all ages are spending more of their day looking at their phones, computers and television screens, but parents now have another reason for limiting how much screen time their children get — it could lead to behavioral problems.

Read More Show Less