Infrastructure protectionHelping Communities Avoid the Climate Crosshairs

By Jared Sagoff, Carolyn Steeele, and Andrea Manning

Published 15 September 2021

Scientists are addressing the vulnerabilities of infrastructure systems through the lens of climate impacts by creating and adapting climate maps to infrastructure as a way for communities to protect themselves from the effects of climate change.

When Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana as a Category 4 storm on August 29, it showed how critical resilient infrastructure systems are in coping with — and surviving — natural disasters. This is particularly true in underserved areas, where disaster planning and redundancies (such as backup plans and supplies) for vulnerable infrastructure are less likely to be sufficient.

Natural disasters and other severe weather events can take a heavy toll on America’s infrastructure systems, when such disasters occur. These energy, water and wastewater, transportation, and communications systems include not only buildings but roadways, pipelines, ports, and energy storage, as well as vehicles and vessels. Such lifeline infrastructure systems were originally planned and constructed based on historic hazards data. But today, they are not necessarily equipped to operate in the evolving context of the greater risks from climate change.

Because to many, hurricanes the size of Ida provide are examples of more frequent, more extreme weather events causing enormous disruption and destruction in communities around the world. The wildfires burning uncontrollably in the western states due to this summer’s drought conditions provide data points in this outlook, as well.

“Climate change is an existential crisis for many communities and infrastructure systems,” said Tom Wall, a program lead in Engineering and Applied Resilience at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Argonne National Laboratory. ​“While many communities and organizations may lack technical sophistication or depth of resources, they should never have to experience a barrier to getting access to usable and useful information. We want them to have that information to help ensure the future resilience of their systems.”

Climate risk to infrastructure can come in a variety of forms, Wall said. ​“If the Northwest has a major heat wave, or hotter, more frequent or longer heat waves, these events can be a problem. Extreme heat events make it harder to generate and transmit electricity, and they can cause roadways or train tracks to buckle, or create other impacts,” he said. ​“Conversely, even just generally higher temperatures overall, not tied to a specific event, can cause problems. We often need natural bodies of water to cool our power plants — so if rivers or other surface waters warm even a few degrees, we can’t cool our power plants as efficiently.”