Changing infrastructure for a changing climate

<span property="schema:name"> Changing infrastructure for a changing climate</span>

Changing infrastructure for a changing climate

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      Johanna Flashman
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    As climate change starts pounding down on the planet, our society’s infrastructure is going to have to go through some serious changes. Infrastructure includes things like our methods of transportation, power and water supply, and sewage and waste systems. The thing with climate change, however, is that it will not effect any single location in the same way. This means there are going to be a lot of different styles of coping with problems such as drought, sea levels rising, flooding, tornados, extreme heat or cold, and storms.

    Throughout this article, I will give a general overview of different strategies for our future climate resistant infrastructure. However, keep in mind that every individual place will have to do its own site-specific studies to find the best solutions for their needs.


    Roads. They are expensive to maintain as they are, but with added damage from floods, precipitation, heat, and frost, upkeep for roads is going to get way pricier. Paved roads where precipitation and flooding are a problem are going to struggle to handle all of the extra water. The issue with the materials we have now is, unlike natural landscapes, they hardly soak up any water at all. Then we have all this extra water that doesn’t know where to go, ultimately flooding streets and cities. The added precipitation will also damage road markings on paved roads and cause more erosion on unpaved roads. The EPA reports that this issue would be especially dramatic within the United States in the Great Planes region, potentially requiring up to $3.5 billion in repairs by 2100.

    In places where extreme heat is more of a concern, high temperatures will cause paved roads to crack more often and need more maintenance. The pavements also soak up more heat, transforming cities into these super intense and dangerous heat spots. With this in mind, locations with hotter temperatures may begin to use forms of “cool pavement.”

    If we continue to emit as much greenhouse gasses as we currently do, EPA projects that by 2100, adaptation costs within the U.S. on roads may go up to as high as $10 billion. This estimation also does not include further damage from the sea level rising or storm flooding, so it would likely be even higher. However, with more regulation on greenhouse gas emissions they estimate that we could avoid $4.2 – $7.4 billion of these damages.

    Bridges and highways. These two forms of infrastructure are going to need the most change in coastal and low sea level cities. As storms become more intense, bridges and highways are at risk of becoming more vulnerable from both the stress that extra wind and water put on them, as well as from general aging.

    With bridges specifically, the biggest danger is something called scour. This is when fast moving water under the bridge washes away sediment that supports its foundations. With bodies of water continually growing from more rain and sea levels rising, scour is just going to keep getting worse. Two current ways that the EPA suggests to help combat this issue in the future are adding more rocks and sediment to stabilize bridge foundations and adding more concrete to strengthen bridges in general.

    Public transportation. Next, let’s consider public transportation such as city buses, subways, trains, and metros. With the hope that we will be reducing our carbon emissions, a lot more people will be taking public transportation. Within cities, there will be a larger amount of bus or rail routes to get around, and the overall quantity of buses and trains will increase to make room for greater numbers of people. However, the future does hold a number of scary possibilities for public transportation, specifically from flooding and extreme heat.

    With flooding, tunnels and underground transportation for railways are going to suffer. This makes sense because the places that will flood first are the lowest grounds. Then add in the electrical lines that transportation methods like metro and subways use and we have a definite public danger. In fact, we have already started seeing this type of flooding in places like New York City, from Hurricane Sandy, and it is only getting worse. Responses to these threats include infrastructure changes such as constructing raised ventilation grates to reduce stormwater, building protective features like retaining walls, and, in some places, relocating some of our transportation infrastructure to less vulnerable areas.

    As for extreme heat, have you ever been on city public transit during rush hour in the summer? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not fun. Even if there is air conditioning (there often isn’t), with that many people packed in like sardines, it is hard to keep the temperature down. This amount of heat can lead to a lot of real dangers, like heat exhaustion for people riding public transportation. To lessen this problem, infrastructure will either have to have less packed conditions or better forms of air conditioning.

    Lastly, extreme heat has been known to cause buckled rails, also known as “heat kinks”, along rail lines. These both slow down trains and require additional and more expensive repairs for transportation.

    Air transportation. One of biggest things to think about regarding plane travel is that the entire operation is relatively dependent on weather. Due to this, planes are going to have to become more resistant to both intense heat and severe storms. Other considerations are the actual airplane runways, because many are close to sea level and vulnerable to flooding. Storm surges are going to make more and more runways unavailable for longer periods of time. To solve this, we may start to either raise runways on higher structures or relocate many of our major airports. 

    Sea transportation. Ports and harbors are also going see some extra changes because of the rising seas and the increased storms on coasts. Some of the structures will likely have to be raised higher or fortified more just to tolerate the rise in sea level.


    Air conditioning and heating. As climate change takes heat to new extremes, the need for air conditioning is going to skyrocket. Places around the world, especially cities, are heating up to deadly temperatures without air conditioning. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, “extreme heat is the most deadly natural disaster in the U.S., killing on average more people than hurricanes, lightning, tornados, earthquakes, and floods combined.”

    Unfortunately, as this demand for energy goes up, our ability to provide energy is going down. Since our current methods of producing energy are one of the main sources of human-caused climate change, we are becoming stuck in this vicious circle of energy use. Our hope lies in looking to cleaner sources to supply more of our energy demands.

    Dams. In most places, the biggest threat to dams in the future is increased flooding and breakage from storms. While a lack of water flow from drought can be a problem in some places, a study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology showed that “the increase in drought duration and deficit volume [would] not affect the power production or the reservoir operation.”

    On the other hand, the study also showed that with increased storms, “the total hydrological failure probability of [a] dam will increase in the future climate.” This happens when dams become overburdened by water and either overflow or break.

    Additionally, in a lecture on the 4th of October discussing the rise of sea levels, William and Mary law professor, Elizabeth Andrews, shows these effects already happening. To quote her, when “Hurricane Floyd hit [Tidewater, VA] in September of 1999, 13 dams were breached and many more were damaged, and as a result, the Virginia dam safety act was amended.” Thus, with increasing storms, we are going to have to put a lot more into dam safety infrastructure.

    Green Energy. A big issue when talking about climate change and energy is our use of fossil fuels. As long as we keep on burning fossil fuels, we will keep on making climate change worse.

    With this in mind, clean, sustainable energy sources are going to become essential. These will include using windsolar, and geothermal sources, as well as new concepts to make energy capture more efficient and accessible, such as the SolarBotanic Green Tree which harvests both wind and solar energy.


    Building regulations. Changes in climate and sea level are going to push us to have better adapted buildings. Whether or not we get these necessary improvements as prevention or as a reaction is questionable, but it will have to happen eventually. 

    In places where flooding is the issue, there will be more requirements for raised infrastructure and flood tolerant strength. This will include any new construction in the future, as well as maintaining our current buildings, to make sure that both are flood resistant. Floods are one of the costliest disasters after earthquakes, so making sure that buildings have strong foundations and are raised above the flood line is crucial. In fact, the increase in flooding may make some locations off limits for building entirely. 

    As for places with lack of water, buildings will have to become a lot more water efficient. This means changes such as low flow toilets, showers, and faucets. In certain areas, we may even have to say goodbye to baths. I know. This upsets me, too.

    Additionally, buildings will need better insulation and architecture to promote efficient heating and cooling. As discussed earlier, air conditioning is becoming a lot more necessary in many places, so making sure that the buildings help to alleviate some of this demand will be a huge help.

    Finally, an innovation starting to come into cities are green roofs. This means having gardens, grass, or some form of plants on the rooftops of buildings. You might ask what the point of rooftop gardens are and be surprised to know they actually have huge benefits, including insulating temperature and sound, absorbing rain, improving air quality, reducing “heat islands”, adding to biodiversity, and just generally being pretty. These green roofs improve inner-city environments so much that cities will start requiring either them or solar panels for every new building. San Francisco has already done this!

    Beaches and coasts. Coastal building is becoming less and less practical. Although everyone loves a seaside property, with sea levels rising, these locations will unfortunately be the first to end up under water. Perhaps the only positive thing about this would be for people slightly more inland, because they may soon be a lot closer to the beach. Really though, construction close to the ocean is going to have to stop, because none of those buildings will be sustainable with increased storms and rising tides.

    Seawalls. When it comes to Seawalls, they are going to continue becoming more common and overused in our attempt to cope with climate change. An article from Scientific American predicts that “every country worldwide will be building walls to defend itself from rising seas within 90 years, because the cost of flooding will be more expensive than the price of protective projects.” Now, what I didn’t know before doing some extra research is that this form of preventing rising tides does a lot of damage to the coastal environment. They tend to make coastal erosion worse and mess up the coast’s natural forms of coping.

    One alternative that we may start to see on coastlines is something called “living shorelines.” These are “nature-based structures,” such as marshes, sand dunes, mangroves or coral reefs that do all the same things as seawalls, but also give seabirds and other critters a habitat. With any luck in construction regulations, these green versions of seawalls may become a leading protective player, especially in sheltered coastal areas such as river systems, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Great Lakes.

    Water channels and green infrastructure

    Having grown up in California, drought has always been a constant topic of conversation. Unfortunately, this is one problem that is not getting any better with climate change. One solution that keeps getting thrown into the debate is infrastructure that transfers water from other places, such as Seattle or Alaska. Yet a closer look shows this isn’t practical. Instead, a different form of water saving infrastructure is something called “green infrastructure.” This means using structures such as rain barrels to essentially harvest rainwater and use it for things like flushing toilets and watering gardens or agriculture. By using these techniques, a study estimated that California could save 4.5 trillion gallons of water.

    Another aspect of green infrastructure incorporates recharging the ground water through having more city areas that absorb water. This includes more permeable pavements, rainwater gardens specifically designed to take in extra water, and simply having more plant space around the city so rainwater can soak into the ground water. The previously mentioned analysis estimated that the value of this ground water recharge in certain areas would be over $50 million.

    Sewage and waste

    Sewage. I saved the best topic for last, obviously. The biggest change to sewage infrastructure as a result of climate change is going to be making treatment plants more effective, and the whole system more flood tolerant. In places with flooding, right now the problem is that sewage systems are not set up to take in a lot of water. This means when a flood happens either sewage gets directed right into nearby streams or rivers, or floodwater infiltrates sewage pipes and we get something called “sanitary sewer overflow.” The name is self-explanatory, but it’s basically when sewers over flow and spread concentrated, raw sewage into the surrounding environment. You can probably imagine the issues behind this. If not, think along the lines of a whole lot of water contamination and resulting disease. Future infrastructure will have to find new ways to deal with overflow and keep a closer eye on its maintenance.

    On the other hand, in places with drought, there are several other concepts floating around regarding the sewage system. One is using less water in the system entirely, to use that extra water for other needs. However, then we have to worry about sewage concentration, how we can successfully treat it, and how damaging that concentrated sewage will be on the infrastructure. Another concept we may begin to toy with will be reusing water after treatment, making the quality of that filtered water even more important.

    Storm water. I have already talked a decent amount about the issues behind storm water and flooding, so I will try not to repeat myself too much. In a lecture about “Restoring the Chesapeake Bay by 2025: Are We on Track?”, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s senior attorney, Peggy Sanner, brought up the issue of runoff pollution from storm water, saying that it is “one of the largest sectors of pollution.” Sanner explains that a big solution for storm water pollution goes along with how we can decrease flooding; that is, having more land that can absorb water. She says, “Once it is infiltrated into the soil, that run-off slows down, cools off, and cleans up and then often enters the waterway through ground water.” However, she admits that putting these new forms of infrastructure into place is usually really expensive and takes a long time. This means, if we are lucky, maybe we’ll be seeing more of this in the next 15 to 25 years.

    Waste. Finally, we have your general waste. The biggest change with this part of society will hopefully be reducing it. When we look at the statistics, waste facilities such as landfills, incinerators, composts, and even recycling on their own cause up to five percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. This may not seem like much, but once you combine it with how all that stuff came to be in the trash (production, transporting, and recycling), it amounts to approximately 42 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

    With that much of an impact, there is no way we are going to be able to keep up this amount of waste without making climate change way worse. Even with narrowing our view and looking at the affects on infrastructure alone, it already seems bad enough. Hopefully, by putting a multitude of the aforementioned solutions and practices in place, humanity can start to make a different sort of impact: one for the better. 

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