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Climate Change, Weather Extremes, and U.S. Infrastructure

Tough Engineering Problems Ahead Without Action to Sharply Slow Global Warming

State of Emergency in New Mexico SOURCE: AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan An electronic billboard warns travelers of the state of emergency in the area around Taos, N.M., on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011. Crews with New Mexico Gas Co. and the National Guard were working through a snowstorm Tuesday to restore natural gas service to thousands in northern New Mexico who had been without service for several days.

Last month’s publication in Nature of two scientific studies linking climate change to increased extreme precipitation events and flooding offers a chance to reflect on a significant emerging challenge for the U.S. economy. Put simply, the technological infrastructure of the United States was designed to operate within a particular range of climatic parameters, and the climatic conditions within which these infrastructures now operate are moving outside of that range with greater frequency. As climatic changes grow, close attention will be needed to adapt engineered systems for water, energy, transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, coastlines, and other fields to new climates.

Illustrations of this challenge occurred in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona this past month. Record cold temperatures in Texas and New Mexico contributed to a series of technological failures in the region’s natural gas pipelines that ultimately led to electricity blackouts in Texas, a complete shutdown of natural gas supply in many areas of New Mexico for close to a week, and the shutdown of seven gas-fired electricity-generating plants in Arizona. While the exact causes of these events are yet to be determined, they illustrated the brittleness of the pipeline system in the face of unexpected climatic conditions as well as the challenge of bringing the pipeline system back online once it had failed.

Another illustration from the Southwest involves ongoing water shortages in the Colorado river system. Lake Mead, from which Las Vegas draws the bulk of its water supply, sits at record-low water levels. Further reductions in water levels would cause the water to drop below the level of the pipeline that takes water to Las Vegas. To prevent that, rules governing the allocation of Colorado river water would kick in and significantly reduce water availability to users in the region. In the short term, water managers will probably allow water to flow into Lake Mead from upstream reservoirs rather than implementing water restrictions. But if ongoing drought in the region continues or escalates, water restrictions for the region’s agriculture are likely to come sooner rather than later.

Infrastructure reform has received high-profile attention in Washington, D.C., in recent years. The American Society of Civil Engineers report on the state of U.S. infrastructure described the serious degradation of the economy’s technological foundations. President Obama called for significantly increased infrastructure funding in his State of the Union address, and the administration’s FY 2012 budget released this week includes funding for the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, adapting infrastructure to the challenges of climate change has received little attention in this conversation. To be sure, the National Academies spilled some ink on the topic in its recently released series of reports on “America’s Climate Choices.” Nonetheless, engineers, policymakers, and the public remain largely unaware of the significant challenges ahead.

Now is the time to begin a serious conversation about climate change and the future of the nation’s and the world’s engineered systems. When we upgrade the country’s infrastructure, climate change must be front and center in our engineering, policy, and business—not only because of the need to think systematically about how infrastructure contributes to carbon dioxide emissions but also because the world is committed to at least modest climate change, no matter how fast we reduce atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases. Hurricane Katrina may or may not have been influenced by anthropogenic climate change. Even so, its devastation of New Orleans highlighted the risks of extreme weather events that exceed the design parameters of technological infrastructures. We are now entering an era where climatic patterns may systematically drift outside the designed operating conditions of many of our most critical systems.

One last point: Infrastructure transformation is not simply an engineering problem or a finance problem. As Boston’s “Big Dig” project made clear, reengineering major infrastructural systems in place requires a new kind of engineering—and a new level of collaboration between leaders in engineering and other societal institutions—that recognizes the social, political, and economic dimensions of technological systems. The country needs engineers, policymakers, business leaders, and citizens who understand the infrastructure challenges we face and who are prepared to work together through the difficult challenges of redesigning and reengineering some of the most complex sociotechnological systems on the planet.

Clark A. Miller is associate director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University.

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