Climate change and infrastructure

27 May 2014

bumperstickerAfter that 100 year winter we just came out of, and the potholes it left behind, everyone seems to be talking about infrastructure.  Even the Michigan Legislature and Chamber of Commerce are supporting tax increases to support road and bridge repairs.  While potholes are annoying, sinkholes and bridge failures can be some pretty serious stuff, as has been recently reported.   President Obama has also spoken recently about infrastructure investment as he asks Congress to appropriate additional highway funds.

There has also been a slew of recent news about climate change including a national assessment report and reports of major antarctic melting.  Given all this news, our investments in infrastructure should take climate change into account. We all know about freeze-thaw and the havoc it can wreak on our roads and bridges. With weather becoming less predictable and more extreme, as we rebuild our infrastructure, we certainly need to think about doing it right the first time including:

  • Designing tougher, more resilient, lower maintenance roadways, bridges, facilities and roadsides;
  • Incorporating materials which will perform more consistently in weather extremes;
  • Better controls of runoff including pavement redesign and strengthening drain, river and stream banks and ditches to prevent erosion;
  • Stronger and lower maintenance bridge design;
  • Changes in roadside vegetation to ensure survival and water uptake during floods as well as drought and erosion resiliency;
  • Larger capacity pumps/pump stations to prevent freeway flooding; and
  • Better sewer and water lines to prevent failures as we experience more freeze-thaw, deeper frosts and drought conditions.

While the east and west coasts are expected to take the biggest climate-based hit (think Katrina, Sandy and California droughts and wildfires) drought, higher temperatures and stronger storm events threaten roads and we have already seen Great Lakes levels impact shipping and commerce.  A recent government report discussed the likely impacts on energy infrastructure including:

  • increased demands for electricity;
  • greater stress on the grid as we experience stronger storms; and
  • power plants’ vulnerability to water shortages.

From roads to utility lines, water lines and sewers, we are on the cusp of a brave new world.  I, for one, think that if we are about to invest billions in putting Michigan back together after many decades of neglect, we ought to do it with our eyes on the future and do it right the first time.  If that costs more, it will be worth it in failures and crises avoided down the road and will provide a base from which Michigan’s economy can grow.

Leave a Comment to “Climate change and infrastructure”

  1. Peter Javsicas 28. May, 2014 at 4:40 pm #

    Mr.Siegal’s points are well taken in terms of remediating infrastructure to account for extreme events linked to climate change. However, the speed of climate change seems to be outstripping the creation of adequate defensive measures. Isn’t it quite evident by now that we also need to drastically cut down on the causes of climate change? That means:

    1) A drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels
    2) An urgent push to refine and employ clean renewable sources of energy, and most important,
    3) Enormous innovation in ways to reduce our per capita consumption of energy.

    I am still optimistic that we can meet these objectives. Just looking back at the past 100 years shows the almost unimaginable capacity for human ingenuity and innovation – for good or ill. The most daunting question is, do we have the political will to act before it’s too late? I think we do – even though I don’t know how that might happen.

  2. Arthur Siegal 29. May, 2014 at 8:19 am #

    Peter – good points. keep watching, the EPA will be rolling out proposed greenhouse gas rules next month. Opposition is already coalescing. I’m less confident in our political will given the recent seeming national opposition to science. I agree that technologically, the US can do it.

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