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Adapting to Climate Change: Is Our Transport Infrastructure Robust Enough?

Flooding in Pakistan. Photo by the United Nations Development Programme.

Flooding in Pakistan. Photo by the United Nations Development Programme.

In the wake of  the Cancun climate negotiations, we thought it would be interesting to examine some of the likely impacts of climate change on transportation infrastructure. “Rising sea levels, greater weather variability, and more extreme weather events like hurricanes, permafrost thawing, and melting Arctic sea ice are just some of the important changes that will impact transportation networks and infrastructure,” says the U.S.-based Bipartisan Policy Center in a report, “Transportation Adaptation to Global Climate Change.”

A large portion of the global population lives in coastal areas that are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. “The current stock of transport infrastructure is generally well adapted to prevailing and historic temperatures, precipitation, wind and water levels,” says Secretary General Jack Short of the International Transport Forum. “But if regional climate patterns start changing, network reliability will decrease and disruptions and maintenance costs will increase.”

Extreme climate and weather patterns have already proved costly and caused transport system delays and inefficiencies. Here are a few examples from around the world:

  • Last winter, Washington. D.C.’s Metro system stopped running on its above-ground sections due to snowfall from the “worst winter in local history,” said the Washington Post.
  • This winter, Europe’s transit networks suffered massive disruptions and delays because of snow and freezing weather. The New York Times documented this December in Britain as the coldest in a century and the snowiest in 30 years, when “average temperatures have sagged to four or five degrees below normal.”
  • Monsoon flooding was particularly brutal in India this year.  In the city of Ahmedabad, home to India’s first full-fledged bus rapid transit (BRT) system, Janmarg, road conditions on the BRT routes were washed out and potholed, as Indian papers reported. Further damage to the infrastructure included broken railings and waterlogging.
  • This year Pakistan experienced its worst floods in 80 years, causing bridges, canals and roads to wash away, not to mention the displacement of ten of millions of people.

Coastal areas and general road infrastructure will not fare well with flooding and increasingly severe weather. The Bipartisan Policy Center says that an increase in the “frequency, intensity, or duration of heat spells could cause railroad track to buckle or kink, and affect roads through softening and traffic-related rutting.”

To begin to address climate-related transportation concerns, Short says, “The first adaptation measure is to review infrastructure design and maintenance standards to see how robust these are to a range of climate scenarios.” He is optimistic, noting that “it may be that making these systems more robust to a greater range of climatic conditions may come at low or no cost.” One example might be re-sizing minimum standards for stormwater evacuation culverts or incorporating speedy responses to severe weather events into routine operations. But “other interventions will be more costly, for instance, hardening coastal infrastructure to a greater frequency and strength of tidal and storm surges, but these costs may well be below the costs of infrastructure loss and network disruption should these measures not be taken.”

Although adaptation measures are necessary, it is also essential to implement comprehensive policies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to curb the most severe impacts of climate change.

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