Study: Climate to affect transportation

March 11, 2008 9:25:13 AM PDT
Flooded roads and subways, deformed railroad tracks and weakened bridges may be the wave of the future with continuing global warming, a new study says. Climate change will affect every type of transportation through rising sea levels, increased rainfall and surges from more intense storms, the National Research Council said in a report released Tuesday.

Complicating matters, people continue to move into coastal areas, creating the need for more roads and services in the most vulnerable regions, the report noted.

"We believe that the threats to our transportation system are real," Henry Schwartz Jr. said in a briefing. He is past president and chairman of the engineering firm Sverdrup/Jacobs Civil Inc., and chairman of the committee that wrote the report.

The storm that has been a once-in-a-hundred-years event may become a once-in-50-years, he said, adding, "What is the proper level to design for?"

Much of the damage will be in coastal areas, but the impact will affect all areas of the country," Schwartz said. "It's time to move from the debate about climate science to 'What are we going to do about it ... how are we going to adapt to it?"'

Luisa M. Paiewonsky, commissioner of the Massachusetts Highway Department said her state is beginning an inventory of low-lying infrastructure because of the danger of sea-level rise.

Thomas R. Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, said "an important message of this report is to begin incorporating that into design and planning."

The probable costs of such improvements were not analyzed in the report, but Schwartz said the costs would be significant. However, he added, it would be less costly to prepare in advance than to deal with a catastrophe.

The report cites five major areas of growing threat: - More heat waves, requiring load limits at hot-weather or high-altitude airports and causing thermal expansion of bridge joints and rail track deformities.

- Rising sea levels and storm surges flooding coastal roadways, forcing evacuations, inundating airports and rail lines, flooding tunnels and eroding bridge bases.

- More rainstorms, delaying air and ground traffic, flooding tunnels and railways, and eroding road, bridge and pipeline supports.

- More frequent strong hurricanes, disrupting air and shipping service, blowing debris onto roads and damaging buildings. - Rising arctic temperatures thawing permafrost, resulting in road, railway and airport runway subsidence and potential pipeline failures.

The nation's transportation system was built for local conditions based on historical weather data, but those data may no longer be reliable in the face of new weather extremes, the report warns.

The committee said proper preparation will be expensive and called on federal, state and local governments to increase consideration of climate change in transportation planning and construction.

The report notes, for example, that drier conditions are likely in the watersheds supplying the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes. The resulting lower water levels would reduce vessel shipping capacity, seriously impairing freight movements in the region, such as occurred during the drought of 1988.

Meanwhile, California heat waves are likely to increase wildfires that can destroy transportation infrastructure.

The outlook isn't all bad, however.

The report says marine transportation could benefit from more open seas in the Arctic, creating new and shorter shipping routes and reducing transport time and costs.

The report was prepared by the Transportation Research Board and the Division on Earth and Life Studies of the National Research Council. The groups are part of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent agency chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters.v Sponsors of the study were the Transportation Research Board, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, the Transportation Department, the Transit Cooperative Research Program, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.

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