The Effects of Various Aspects of Climate Change on Transportation Infrastructure

Focus Area

Climate Change


Air Quality, Environmental Process







Research Idea Scope

It is anticipated that future changes in climate will bring with it rising temperatures, increased precipitation events, permafrost, increasing sea levels, etc. Transportation infrastructure is likely to be affected adversely by any one, or combination of all of these. For the aviation sector, the impacts of climate change could affect existing and future aviation infrastructure–for example many U.S. airports are located in coastal areas. A better understanding of these impacts, vulnerabilities, and adaptation needs for the aviation system is needed. This is true for other sectors including highways, railroads, port, and transit infrastructure. Furthermore, the implications of increased absolute surface temperatures as well as expanded temperature differentials (daily and yearly) will likely affect rail infrastructure; design, installation, maintenance, repair, and inspection.   In addition to the obvious issues, this topic could include focus on implications for utilization of maintenance of way equipment on lines with traditional movement of equipment from south to north in the winter months and the issue of changing sub grade support (thawing permafrost) in Alaska and portions of western Canada. 
This project would address the impacts of the various aspects of climate change on transportation infrastructure design, construction, maintenance and operations. In some instances, the facilities can be protected from the effects of climate change. In other instances, it may be necessary to construct alternatives to the existing facilities. Looking into the future, new standards need to be developed for the construction of transportation facilities to reduce the danger of adverse impacts due to climate change. Moreover, approaches need to be developed for the construction, maintenance, and operation of transportation facilities to minimize these impacts. Development of best practices on risk assessment and cost trade-offs for the items in the previous statement need to be accomplished.
Urgency/PriorityA substantial number of transportation facilities are located in areas that are in danger increased precipitation events and from rising water levels as the earth’s temperature rises. In addition, rising temperatures can affect the operations and maintenance of other transportation facilities. It is critically important to minimize the adverse impacts of these phenomena on transportation intrastate. Furthermore, new design standards are needed to assure that the construction of future infrastructure projects avert problems from rising temperature and water levels.

Urgency and Payoff

The results of this project could be used to decrease the vulnerability of existing transportation infrastructure to the adverse effects of the various aspects of climate change and to avert such problems in the design of future infrastructure projects.
The results could be used to reduce the cost and operational difficulties due to climate change. Furthermore, the results could be used to avert operation problems and disruptions on the movement of passengers and goods.

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