The impacts of climate change on infrastructure
This may sound obvious – but climate change is a very real problem.
Data continuously shows that Earth’s climate has been warming for some time and it looks as if that trend will only continue in the years and decades to come.
That was one of the key messages from a symposium held by the Virginia Climate Center at George Mason University this month. It was presented to broadcast weather professionals across the state.
Researchers at GMU said the warming trend since the Industrial Revolution has had a number of impacts – with extreme heat and flooding incidents becoming more and more prevalent. That’s not only in Virginia and the U.S., but around the world.
Jim Kinter is a professor of climate dynamics at GMU. He provided a number of examples of extreme weather events we’ve seen in recent years.
“We had a period last summer when there were large swaths of India where literally tens of millions of people are living where the wet bulb globe temperature got very close to the unsurvivable level of 35 degrees Celsius. There [were] air temperatures in excess of 45 degrees Celsius.”
That’s 113 degrees Fahrenheit. The wet bulb globe temperature is a measure of heat stress that accounts for the air temperature, humidity levels, wind speed and the sun angle.
Kinter went on to list other events – including extreme flooding in Vermont earlier this year. There were also the devastating floods in the small town of Hurley in Buchanan County, Virginia back in 2021.
NOAA reports hottest August on record
Speaking of a warming climate – August 2023 was the hottest August Earth has seen in NOAA’s 174-year climate record.
Data from the agency shows that the average global land and ocean surface temperature last month was more than two degrees warmer than the 20th century average of 60.1 degrees Fahrenheit.
Four continents – Africa, Asia, North America and South America – had record-breaking warm Augusts. Europe and Oceania (that’s Australia and the Pacific islands) had their second-warmest Augusts.
In addition, the Arctic region experienced its warmest August on record.
The heat contributed to the lowest global August sea ice extent in recorded history.
Global warming also leads to sea level rise – an impact anyone who lives in the Hampton Roads area can attest to.
Those kinds of events are very significant and highly visual, but impacts in other areas – like infrastructure – might not be so evident.
Celso Ferreira is a professor of environmental engineering at George Mason University. He said infrastructural damage from extreme weather events has risen in recent years, and he only expects that trend to continue.
Ferreira said building and infrastructure projects in Virginia use a product from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called Atlas 14. That’s basically a statistical precipitation snapshot over a given historical period.
“Everything that we design and put in place related to stormwater and water resources engineering is now based on a 20-year-old time series,” he said. The latest update to Atlas 14 in Virginia was in the 2000’s.
Ferreira and his team looked into intensity-duration-frequency curves for Northern Virginia as well. Those are essentially the guidelines developers use to plan for a certain amount of rainfall in a given time period.
As things stand currently, a project with a 10-year return period is typically built to withstand five inches of rain within a 24-hour period. Anything more than that can cause infrastructure to not perform as intended and even fail.
Ferreira’s team tried to find out what an updated standard should be accounting for.
“As we move into the future, that we’re moving away from the confidence interval – so even if we’re using the upper bound of the confidence that we have today, we would need to be accounting for much more rainfall when designing infrastructure.”
Ferreira added that infrastructure projects are often very large and meant to be on the ground potentially for generations.
“And retrofitting those systems is painful, it’s expensive, it’s hard, it’s sometimes not politically welcoming because you have to dig, people don’t see the benefit at the time.”
He said current infrastructure will become severely under designed as time goes on. That means more infrastructure will fail as intense rainfall events become more and more common under a warming climate.
As the talk went on, the GMU researchers painted a challenging picture for lawmakers and local governments trying to tackle this problem. I asked if they had suggestions for individuals – to which climate dynamics professor Jim Kinter responded…
“Well, what I always tell my students is to vote! I know it sounds almost silly to tell people that the solution to the problem is to go to the polling place, but it really is.”
Another researcher added that means being informed about where candidates stand on this particular issue and also voicing concerns to those who already are in office.