From fires in the Amazon and Australia, to flash flooding in Europe, right across the globe we are witnessing the impact of climate change on the environment.

Infrastructure is planned with a particular design life in mind, and it is anticipated to be functional and sustainable during that time. However, many infrastructures perform inadequately due to a variety of causes, both technical and non-technical. Many urban drainage networks, for example, cannot function properly because they are full of waste; urban drainage networks cannot accommodate surface runoff due to unprecedented rainfall, or broken roads due to a large number of vehicles carrying loads exceeding the maximum planned and permitted load limits.

Furthermore, extreme weather events caused by climate change would most certainly exacerbate infrastructure disruption. When a region’s infrastructure performance is disturbed, it affects other sectors, particularly the economic and public health sectors. Physical damage to these infrastructure systems and service disruptions caused by climate change will result in considerable economic and human losses.

The power grid

The power grid is extremely vulnerable to climate risk from both acute and chronic impacts, which is exacerbated by weak components and inadequate redundancy. Climate-related concerns are already having an impact on the power grid. Higher temperatures reduce generation efficiency, increase transmission and distribution losses, reduce the lifetime of critical equipment such as power transformers, increase peak demand, and force certain thermoelectric plants offline. These pressures result in higher operating expenses and shorter asset life daily. These pressures can, in rare situations, overwhelm the grid, resulting in load shedding and blackouts. As temperatures rise, so will the number of power grid outages and their accompanying expenses.

The frequency of intense heat events and the duration of less severe periods of higher-than-average heat that cause efficiency losses increase as average heat levels rise. Hot periods will be hotter than usual, increasing the degree of failure and, as a result, the associated recovery times, lost revenues, and repair expenses.

Transportation

Temperature variability and magnitude, precipitation, increasing sea levels, and extreme weather events can all have an impact on transportation infrastructure. Flooding of highways, bridges, and ports can occur as a result of heavy rain. Damage to structures or increased wear and tear might result in greater maintenance expenditures. Transportation infrastructure is extensively dispersed, interdependent, and vulnerable to minor climate hazards, resulting in large societal consequences. Extreme heat, for example, is already impacting global air travel.

What does climate change have to do with infrastructure? - Sheet1
Signature Bridge, New Delhi_©RJB-CPL

When temperatures in Phoenix, Arizona, reached 48 degrees Celsius in July 2017, roughly 50 flights were grounded for physical and regulatory reasons. According to Professor David Levinson, a transport engineering expert, extreme weather increases weather variability, and roads designed for a specific climate range may collapse more quickly. All of this raises the expense of design and retrofitting while diminishing user reliability.

Water supply and wastewater systems

Water supply systems can potentially face long-term outages as a result of severe shocks such as hurricanes and flooding. Seventy per cent of the damaged drinking water facilities were offline for two weeks following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Flooding can also cause prolonged recovery times. Water treatment methods, such as desalination facilities, could, on the other hand, be increasingly used to mitigate the effects of drought. Wastewater systems also suffer as a result of climate shocks. 

Sewers may have insufficient flow during a drought, resulting in obstructions and the inability to treat human waste. Blockages increase the risk of sewage systems overflowing in the heart of cities. Flooding, particularly during hurricanes, is the most serious hazard to wastewater infrastructure. Chronic pressures are also causing similar but more gradual wastewater discharges. Climate change can have four major effects on our water-carrying infrastructure: greater and decreased precipitation, higher sea levels, and higher temperatures.

Increased precipitation can cause infrastructure damage and soil run-off; decreased precipitation can cause increased water pollution due to a decrease in water flows; higher air and water temperatures cause faster evaporation and asset corrosion, and sea level rise can affect both the availability and quality of water supply due to saltwater intrusion into groundwater aquifers and distribution networks. The current population is experiencing a severe decrease in rainfall. Reduced rainfall can raise infrastructure expenses, including increased maintenance and repair costs for water treatment plants due to lower-quality inputs.

Sardar Sarovar Dam_©Gujarat Tourism

Telecommunications

Telecommunications infrastructure is a fast-growing sector with greater agility and redundancy, but as the world’s reliance on communications networks grows, so will climate hazards. High winds or trees can cause mobile phone towers and telephone poles to fall, as well as telephone wires and base stations to be blown down and microwave receivers to become misaligned. Above-ground cabling is more vulnerable than buried lines of support due to pole failures, debris and falling items (such as trees), and breaking due to tension generated by high wind speeds. The most serious hazards are flooding and hurricanes.

Floods swamped several vital telecom assets in the United Kingdom in 2015-16, shutting off thousands of homes, companies, and critical public agencies such as the police. Hurricanes Irma and Maria wreaked havoc on Caribbean communication infrastructure, destroying more than 90% of cell sites in Puerto Rico, St. Martin, Dominica, and Antigua & Barbuda. These attacks disrupt the system precisely as it is needed for disaster recovery.

Conclusion

The evolution of global infrastructure over the next 50 years could have a significant impact on the impact of climate change on civilization. Infrastructure typically entails huge investments in assets that are intended to last a long time. As the climate changes and more severe weather conditions emerge, certain climate bands become obsolete, causing infrastructure to operate outside of their tolerance thresholds. This can pose direct hazards to the assets as well as major knock-on repercussions for individuals who rely on the services provided by those assets.

More money will be required to be spent on and in support of infrastructure, as well as on new methods. Building slightly higher fences may not be the greatest solution, metaphorically or physically. Wherein the implications go beyond infrastructure. Failure to adapt by failing to account for climate change in the design, building, and maintenance of infrastructure assets will not only cost owners and operators money but also leave entire communities exposed and vulnerable. Adaptation can provide a considerable return by lowering the costs of climate-related infrastructure degradation and averting significant societal consequences.

References:

Addressing climate change impacts on infrastructure: Preparing for Change – Transportation (2012) Global Climate Change. Available at: https://www.climatelinks.org/resources/addressing-climate-change-impacts-infrastructure-preparing-change-transportation (Accessed: November 27, 2022).

How climate change impacts infrastructure: Experts explain (no date) The University of Sydney. Available at: https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2019/11/27/how-climate-change-impacts-infrastructure–experts-explain.html (Accessed: November 27, 2022).

Pudyastuti, P.S. and Nugraha, N.A. (2018) “Climate change risks to infrastructures: A general perspective,” AIP Conference Proceedings [Preprint]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1063/1.5043000.

Woetzel, J. et al. (2021) Will infrastructure bend or break under climate stress?, McKinsey & Company. McKinsey & Company. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/sustainability/our-insights/will-infrastructure-bend-or-break-under-climate-stress (Accessed: November 27, 2022). 

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An architecture student, always looking for something new by being a part of everything creative to express herself in every form. Being heard and able to deliver a great word has always been her bent. An old soul who believes that a conversation about changing for the better can accomplish a lot.

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