Adaptation as a Defensive Strategy to Address Climate Variability Impacts on Critical Transportation Infrastructure

Focus Area

Climate Change


Air Quality, Environmental Process







Research Idea Scope

In some locations, particularly the U.S. Gulf, transportation infrastructure will remain at risk due to persistent weaknesses in natural systems, such as sea-level rise coupled with shoreline subsidence and barrier island erosion. One way of avoiding repeated hardening and reconstruction costs is to move the infrastructure to where it is less at risk – this is a kind of adaptation to climate variability.
This research would follow-on from the U.S. DOT study, Impacts of Climate Change and Variability on Transportation Systems and Infrastructure: Gulf Coast Study (2008) (PDF 10.06mb). The objective would be to quantify the risk to existing infrastructure in its present form and location, and undertake a cost-benefit analysis geared toward balancing the cost of hardening and/or reconstruction with the cost of moving it to where the damage from climate variability will not be so great. Significant cost could be avoided by planning the relocation of such infrastructure where the anticipated rate of depreciation and or catastrophic destruction (as with the bridge of Highway 1A during Katrina) is high. If planned sufficiently in advance, such projects could be undertaken in a way that would minimize disruption to the existing network, while providing a concrete example of an adaptation strategy.
Related Work
As indicated above, this work should follow from the U.S. DOT study on Impacts of Climate Variability on Transportation Infrastructure. This study examined all aspects of transportation infrastructure in the U.S. Gulf from Houston to Mobile, including surface and air transportation, as well as pipelines. The work involved a geographic examination of how far inland the sphere of influence of climatic variability would reach, taking into account sea level rise, subsidence, barrier island erosion, and salt marsh diminution. The study also indicates whether conclusions reached may be applicable to similar locations elsewhere in the U.S. Several cities have already taken steps to relocate, in Kentucky, Virginia, Iowa and Alaska, as a result of persistent flooding. A considered plan to relocate critical infrastructure to enhance its useful life would be a logical outcome.
This research would also directly support other infrastructure related research statements under this heading, such as “Examine the Relationship of Climate Change and greenhouse gas (GHG) Mitigation with Transportation Infrastructure Security”, “Constructs to Enable Multiple Agencies to Develop Policies Relating Climate Change and Critical Transportation Infrastructure Protection”, or “Collaborative Decision-Making Framework for Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation.”
The need to preserve and protect our critical infrastructure has already been clearly presented in other policy statements. This research would support that mission, by addressing the potential weaknesses inherent in the location of specific infrastructures in at-risk geography due to climate variability.
There are areas along all the coast of the U.S. where our infrastructure is present in abundance, which presents a huge asset base that needs to be protected. In some locations, the damage potential of severe storms and erosion is minimal, so hardening will be sufficient. In the U.S. Gulf, however, or locations above the Arctic Circle, hardening will not be sufficient. Subsidence, storm surge, and large scale erosion will destroy even hardened infrastructure.
Recalling the cost of the DOT study, this research should not exceed $750,000, as it should be based in large part on the existing DOT information and the results of other security-oriented research efforts. The analysis will be partly geo-spatial, and partly cost-benefit.

Urgency and Payoff

The findings could result in a National program to harden or relocate key infrastructure. One outcome could be a multi-state dialogue about adaptation to implement the recommendations of such a study in an at-risk region such as the U.S. Gulf. Or, the study could result in a recommendation on how infrastructure should be hardened and that it does not need to be moved at all.
EffectivenessThe societal effects of this research will be highly sensitive. The presence and location of specific infrastructure is an economic necessity for businesses of all sorts, as well as an attractor for new economic development. It adds the fundamental value to countless homes and businesses. Any plan to relocate such infrastructure will face an uphill battle. However, the potential societal benefit from having hardened, secure, and sustainable infrastructure is significant. The cost of Katrina and Rita was in excess of $100 Billion. This was due in part to the potency of the storms, yes, but it was also due to the significant amount of infrastructure that was present.

Suggested By

RNS. Sponsoring Committee: A0020T, Special Task Force on Climate Change and Energy Source Info: Special Task Force on Climate Change and Energy January 2010 Workshop