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Climate Change Will Affect Transportation

March 11, 2008

Global Warming may soon affect every mode of transportation worldwide. With rising sea levels alongside increased, more intense storms, current transportation infrastructures may be seriously weakened, the National Research Council says. The impact of climate change will vary from region to region, with the coastal regions potentially getting the most severe damage. These prospective blows to the U.S. transportation system are drawing attention to the need for significant changes in the design, planning, construction, operation and maintenance of the transportation systems.

Previously, these transportation systems were built using weather and climate predictions based on historical data. This means of data collection is no longer reliable; due to new extremes, some infrastructures can fail due to stress.

Harry Schwartz Junior, past president and chairman of the engineering firm Sverdrup/Jacobs Civil Inc., and president of the committee in charge of writing this report said, “The time has come for transportation professionals to acknowledge and confront the challenges posed by climate change and to incorporate the most current scientific knowledge into the planning of transportation systems.”

Not only does the climate challenge the infrastructure of transportation worldwide, but so does the influx of people into coastal areas. As the populace continues to move toward the coast, the need for more businesses and roads in these areas rises. This complicates things, as the coastal regions are the most vulnerable to infrastructure failure.

These vulnerabilities will move beyond the coast as the climate changes. In California, heat waves could increase wildfires which could destroy means of transportation. Dry conditions may also overcome watersheds supplying river systems, as well as lakes, leaving boats and barges stranded. On the other hand, increased rainfall in the Midwest could cause flooding to become much more severe.

The recently published report from the National Research Council claims that 5 major areas of growing threat exist. One area is that of heat waves, which can lead to load-limits at airports and cause rail tracks and bridge joints to deform or expand. Rising sea levels can flood roadways and force evacuation, causing major problems in transportation as well as weakening of coastal roadways. Incidents like this can be seen though the loss of the U.S. 90 Bridge in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. A third threat is an increase in rainstorms which will delay traffic, flood tunnels and erode road supports.

Hurricanes may also increase and become stronger, challenging air and ground shipping services and blowing damaging debris onto roadways. Lastly, rising arctic temperatures can cause permafrost to thaw, leading to road, railway and airport runway subsidence and pipeline failures. All of these factors compromise highways, runways, and railways, which could lead to a complete transportation meltdown.

The report demands implementation of recommendations by the federal government, establishment of a research program to develop new standards and reassess existing design standards to address climate change, creation of a group for adaptation, re-evaluation of the National Flood Insurance Program, and changes in federal regulations regarding long term infrastructure planning. Preparing for these projected changes will come at a high cost.

Despite the severity and costliness of the potential problems, all of these changes in climate may not be negative. In cold regions, prices of snow and ice control may be reduced by a heat wave, and travel conditions could be made safer. Marine transport could also benefit from melted ice in the Arctic. Passageways and shipping routes could be opened up, which would reduce both the cost and time of transport.

Although there are positives and negatives, it is critical that the government takes a stand in identifying and fixing vulnerable infrastructure.

On the Net:

Read the full report at http://www.trb.org/news/blurb_detail.asp?id=8794

National Research Council

National Flood Insurance Program




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