Climate impacts on transportation a hot topic during a hot summer

By Eric Sundquist

Amid this summer’s wildfires, drought and heat wave, many news articles and scholarly reports have focused on the changing climate’s effects on transportation.

With temperatures lingering above 100 degrees F in the upper Midwest, reports of closed roads due to buckling pavement were common. Perhaps none was more spectacular than this scene accidentally captured in Wisconsin, where broken pavement sent a vehicle airborne.

From the East Coast came this report of melting airport tarmac, and this New York transit official’s report linking of subway tunnel leaks to sea level rise.

In North Carolina, where the main highway through the Outer Banks had been washed out in two places by Hurricane Irene last year, the road was open – but with the sea encroaching, how long would it last? Maintaining the highway “is totally a lost cause,” Stanley R. Riggs, a coastal scientist at East Carolina University told the New York Times. “It will bankrupt the state.”

Such stories might help build support for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts by transportation agencies. On the other hand, they are anecdotes – their meaning and importance subject to interpretation, since storms and heat waves existed before the climate began to warm. More definitive is a new U.S. Geological Survey report showing that the East Coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts is a hotspot for sea level rise, with increases three to four times that of the global average.

“Cities in the hotspot, like Norfolk, New York, and Boston already experience damaging floods during relatively low intensity storms,” Asbury Sallenger, USGS oceanographer, said in a printed statement. “Ongoing accelerated sea level rise in the hotspot will make coastal cities and surrounding areas increasingly vulnerable to flooding by adding to the height that storm surge and breaking waves reach on the coast.”

Finally, another newly released report Climate Change and Transportation: Summary of Key Information, from the Transportation Research Board, provides a concise summary of transportation’s contributions to climate change and mitigation policy levers. It also discusses various state DOTs’ adapation responses:

“Already, many states are experiencing more intense precipitation with record-level flooding—as occurred in Tennessee, Rhode Island, Iowa, and Wisconsin in 2010, and during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 in Vermont. Alaska is responding to the thawing permafrost that affects transportation structures and roadways. State DOTs, MPOs, and local transportation agencies are working with climate scientists to better understand the risk and to incorporate climate change into transportation asset management planning. Climate change adaption confronts all transportation modes and all functions: planning, environmental review, design, construction, operations, and maintenance.”

Eric Sundquist is Managing Director at SSTI.