According to the data, extreme weather conditions across North America have been increasing in recent years. Beyond the speculation surrounding climate change apocalypses from politicians and media stars, there are more fundamental problems stemming from this shift in climate conditions which are challenging infrastructure today, such as wider temperature fluctuations and increased rainfall. These challenges not only call into question how we build, but where we build and with what materials.
Most structures are only designed to withstand weather events that happen a certain amount of times over a predetermined amount of years. Increases in these occurrences may expose roads, bridges and rails to environmental factors beyond their inherent limitations. With infrastructure being the backbone of our civilization, protecting the integrity of the roads, bridges and structure will be crucial to the sustained function of day-to-day life in coming decades should current trends continue.
Extreme Weather Events on the Rise
The numbers are concerning no matter which way you look at it. In just one example, according to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), most regions of the United States have seen massive increases in once-rare windstorms. Occurrences of high-speed winds are happening as much as 51% more often in the west and 85% more often in eastern regions. If wind speeds increase by just 6% on average, millions of buildings are expected to be damaged by varying degrees and the consequence could contribute to $2 billion in losses.
This particular outlook on extreme weather events helps bring the focus back into the realm of economics and financial responsibility. Since 1980, both the average number and average total cost of billion-dollar-damage events per year has quadrupled. From huge floods on the Mississippi to power outages across the SouthWest, these infrastructure failures have already produced destructive, capital-draining results. If no counter measures are taken, extreme weather events could
Which Weather Events are Most Damaging to Infrastructure?
Flooding: Having caused more than an estimated $830 billion in losses since the year 2000, flooding is the most destructive environmental disaster in the United States. Flooding can wash away roads and bridges, and damage homes, schools and hospitals. With increased rainfall, roadways and structures may be subject to weather events not intended to be withstood at such high frequencies.
Winds and Wildfires: According to Caltrans, climate conditions have increased the frequency and severity of wildfires, and decreased California’s ability to respond effectively. Droughts and high temperatures are thought to be primarily responsible for creating dangerous fire conditions, with windstorms downing power lines which ignite destructive infernos throughout the region.
Freeze/Thaw Cycles: While less dramatic than floods and firestorms, freeze/thaw cycles can cause long-term damage to concrete structures.
High Temperatures: Increases in the frequency of hot days can lead to pavement softening, rutting and bleeding of liquid asphalt.
Underlying the effects extreme weather has on the structures we use are the materials we use to build them. Depending on the particular resource, techniques used in different geographical regions, the effects of climate change will produce different results. As such, construction industry leaders should be thinking of diverse solutions to multifaceted, complicated climate concerns.
What are the Best Ways to Protect Critical Infrastructure from Extreme Climate Events?
The International Institute for Sustainable Development recommends several strategies for preparing resilience against extreme climate events.
Using Weather Events to Our Advantage:
Experts from Arizona State University and the University of Texas at Dallas have cited numerous examples from around the world that reflect ingenious ways of planning for weather events considered “safe-to-fail.” Safe-to-fail means that infrastructure is created with failure in mind and the assurance that such infrastructure failure not only limits damage but can be used to our advantage. For example, instead of building increasingly tall levees, civil engineers in the Netherlands implemented agriculture systems along river banks which productively absorb excess water in the event of a flood. In similar fashion, Scottsdale, Arizona once built an 11-mile stretch of parks, ponds and golf courses which simultaneously contain flooding while providing land resources people can enjoy. In this sense, advocating for smarter use and planning of resources rather than simply increasing expenditure will play a role in preparing for these climate changes.
Develop New Building Materials:
As we addressed recently on our blog, materials like concrete are contributing to the conditions believed to increase extreme weather events. With the example of concrete in mind, Smart concrete is looking to kill two birds with one stone by helping to lower CO2 emissions in the production process while incorporating new technologies like self-healing capabilities.