Rail lines; Rail lines;

Can our infrastructure take the heat?

With the frequency of 'once in a century' weather events seemingly increasing each year, is it time the design community took a serious look at the resilience of our infrastructure?

In the United States, the past few months have given ample cause for concern. At the time of writing, 4,313 temperature records had been broken. The National Climatic Data Center has reported that the 12 months between June 2011 and 2012 were the hottest since 1895. And 55% of the country is experiencing drought conditions, helping spread the forest fires that have been tearing through the Midwest.

The US infrastructure system has demonstrated its vulnerability under these extreme conditions. As the New York Times recently reported, on a single day last month, a US Airways jet was stuck on the runway due to high temperatures and a subway train derailed when heat bent a track. A Midwestern nuclear plant had to be shut down when the waterbody where it extracted cooling water dipped below the intake pipe, while another power plant reduced generation because the cooling water was too warm. The exact amount that the government invests in infrastructure can be debated, but in my experience the consensus amongst engineers in the field is that not enough is being done to ensure long-term functionality. If this year’s climate trends continue or worsen, how will infrastructure that is barely adequate in normal conditions fare (in 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the nation’s infrastructure a dismal D)?

Around the US, public and private organisations are conducting workshops and studies to identify how infrastructure can be planned and built (or rebuilt) for climate change resilience. Many cities have undertaken these studies (through organisations such as C40 Cities Group) and have prioritised investments, formed public-private partnerships, and identified swift construction procurement techniques. But faster and more comprehensive action is required.

Three factors need to converge for long-term resilience to be a possibility: technology, integrated green infrastructure and government policy.

Specific technical actions that can be undertaken now include designing for future resilience rather than per existing codes – balancing ecosystem services and municipal services to form green infrastructure and creating smart cities where interconnected infrastructure systems consider synergies while allowing both the operator and user to manage the system.