Global Warming to Affect Transport

A National Research Council report released Tuesday states that America’s transportation infrastructure is at risk due to the effects of global warming. Severe weather and rising water levels will impact roadways, railroads, and airports. The report recommends cooperative efforts in transportation planning between federal, state, and local agencies, inventory and retrofit of critical infrastructure, and consideration of potential impacts of climate change on all future transportation projects.

Climate change will affect transportation primarily through increases in several types of weather and climate extremes. Climate warming over the next 50 to 100 years will be manifested by increases in very hot days and heat waves, increases in Arctic temperatures, rising sea levels coupled with storm surges and land subsidence, more frequent intense precipitation events, and increases in the intensity of strong hurricanes. The impacts will vary by mode of transportation and region of the country, but they will be widespread and costly in both human and economic terms and will require significant changes in the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of transportation systems.

The past several decades of historical regional climate patterns commonly used by transportation planners to guide their operations and investments may no longer be a reliable guide for future plans. In particular, future climate will include new classes (in terms of magnitude and frequency) of weather and climate extremes, such as record rainfall and record heat waves, not experienced in modern times as human-induced changes are superimposed on the natural variability of the climate.

Decisions transportation professionals take today, particularly those related to the redesign and retrofitting of existing transportation infrastructure or the location and design of new infrastructure, will affect how well the system adapts to climate change far into the future.

Some specific areas of concern mentioned in the report include:

– 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.

This report is a collaborative effort between the Transportation Research Board and the Division on Earth and Life Studies of the National Research Council. The sponsors of this report are the Transportation Research Board, National Cooperative Highway Research Program, U.S. Department of Transportation, Transit Cooperative Research Program, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Read the report summary; or

Read the full report.

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