Engineering and Infrastructure In A Collapsing Climate

17:16 minutes

Road collapses with huge cracks. Flood damage highway. Asphalt road collapsed and fallen after heavy flood or earthquake
Credit: Shutterstock

Roads buckling. Power grids flickering. Roads washing out and basements flooding. Climate change brings new hazards for both human health and the infrastructure that keeps our communities functioning. So how do we build for the conditions that are coming–and in many ways already here? 

Arizona State University engineer Mikhail Chester talks to Ira about the physical alterations we’ll need and, perhaps more importantly, the way the process of building must change too. Plus why building things to fail—but with less deadly consequences—may be necessary in an uncertain future.

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Segment Guests

Mikhail Chester

Mikhail Chester is a professor of Civil, Environmental, & Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. It’s another week from hell– almost literally in many parts of the country.

Last week we talked about the toll the hot weather takes on the human body– how it turns deadly for people without access to air conditioning. This week we’re going to talk about another casualty of extreme heat, the health of our infrastructure. We’re talking the power grid in Texas taxed to the max trying to keep life-saving AC on, roads and train tracks buckling under this summer’s inferno. We’ve watched runways melt in the UK. Not to mention the heartbreaking floods overwhelming human attempts to contain them.

So can we prevent infrastructure from failing and endangering lives as conditions change? And how do we build for an uncertain climate change future? With me to talk about this is Dr. Mikhail Chester, a Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University in Tempe. Welcome to the program.

MIKHAIL CHESTER: Greetings, Ira. Great to be on with you.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I just mentioned some examples of infrastructure problems we’ve seen in the extreme heat recently. But can you explain on a physical level why a power grid has a harder time in hot weather? I mean, it’s not just that everyone has the AC on, is it?

MIKHAIL CHESTER: That’s right. So when you think about the relationships between infrastructure and their environments, there are normative choices that are made about how much environmental exposure or environmental extreme events– in particular, asset or a larger system– can be able to tolerate, withstand. Any of those words, I think, are reasonable.

So in the case of power systems, you can think of a power system as a giant heat management set of technologies. So for example, as we generate electricity and thermoelectric power plants, like nuclear coal, you’re managing heat, you’re transferring energy around in the form of heat. When you’re talking about something like power lines, you have electricity that’s flowing through them. And that electricity is generating heat.

And that heat has to go somewhere. And we have engineered assets in our systems– for example, power lines– to be able to give off heat fast enough. For example, under certain conditions if those conditions change– for example, at the peak of the summer, or if temperatures continue to rise– we have a heat wave– then the line in this case would not be able to give off heat fast enough. So at that point, several things might happen.

The line is warming up. It might expand or sag. In the case of a power line, we might be concerned about it coming into contact with a tree. Or what might happen is recognizing that temperatures are at their highest and exceeding what the system is designed for, engineers might make decisions about actually reducing the flow of, in this case, electricity through the power line so that it stays within its safe operating conditions. And the reduction of that electricity at a time when a lot of people are demanding more and more electricity for– in this case, air conditioning– can be problematic.

So at a material level, there’s a number of things going on in terms of how we’ve designed the infrastructure. And then there’s also the operations of that infrastructure. All of these things come into play when infrastructures are confronted by extreme events.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a really interesting explanation because I don’t think most people understood why the power is cut back, right, just when you need it most. It’s to save the power lines.

MIKHAIL CHESTER: Yeah, that’s right. And if you look at when historically we’ve had major outages of– in this case, the power system– not coincidentally it happens at the peak of the summer. For example, the 2003 Northeast Blackout in the US happens right in the middle of August, happens sort of at the worst time. And the reason for this is because that’s where you’ve pushed the system to its capacity.

There’s no fat in the system, so to speak. So as soon as something goes offline, or multiple components go offline, or climate change pushes the extreme even further beyond what the system was designed for, then you start to have serious problems.

IRA FLATOW: That’s really interesting. And of course, that goes on– we’re talking metal, right? The power lines are made out of metal. You have the railroad tracks that, just like the power lines, they expand. But they have no place to go. So they buckle.

MIKHAIL CHESTER: That’s right. You’re starting to see lots of stories emerge in places like the UK and even northern regions of the US that are being hit by this heat wave, where you’re seeing issues around tracks buckling. And again, it’s sort of a similar narrative. The tracks are, of course, designed for heavy heat periods.

But as we see extreme heat events become that much more severe, or even prolonged, we’re starting to exceed what those particular systems were designed for. In the case of a rail, an interesting dynamic that we’re seeing emerge is even if the tracks have not buckled, train operators are often told to slow down because simply there’s a risk of buckling. So even if the tracks themselves have not buckled, the train schedules are disrupted. And of course, people who rely on mass transit in that case are going to be impacted.

IRA FLATOW: The heat isn’t the only issue climate change is exacerbating. We just saw historic devastating floods in Kentucky and Missouri. We’ve had dozens of people die in New Jersey and New York last fall when the remnants of Hurricane Ida dropped rain like at a rate of three inches per hour. And one of the problems here is that we have storm water systems that can’t handle it.

They’re not made to handle this kind of flow, correct?

MIKHAIL CHESTER: In many cases, that’s, indeed, correct. And this goes back to how we design. And I think it’s important to recognize the challenges of how we’ve been designing infrastructure through present day relative to the challenges of how we need to design infrastructure for an uncertain climate future. So in the case of water, we often are designing around historical data that tells us how much precipitation or water has passed through a particular area.

You might size a storm-water pipe underneath a road given the historical data that has been collected for your particular region. So an engineer does this all the time. If we then recognize that climate change is creating conditions that are, in many cases, in many places, producing more extreme precipitation events, and more extreme flooding, but also the challenge of uncertainty associated with how bad climate change might get, the combination of those two puts us in a challenging position. We don’t quite know how big to make the pipe under the road.

We can’t necessarily afford it. And we’re not quite sure how extreme these conditions are going to be, say, 30, 50, 100 years from now.

IRA FLATOW: Right. You know, I’m almost having a deja vu all over again moment here because I’ve been following these issues for so many decades, and it always seems to me that we already know everything we need to make the roads, and the power grids, and the storm-water systems more resilient to changing climate. And it doesn’t seem like we need to invent anything really new.

MIKHAIL CHESTER: At some scale of the problem when we talk about how do we harden, or strengthen, or even armor a particular asset, we absolutely know how to do that. If you are a storm-water engineer, for example, in a city in the US, and somebody says to you the forecasts or the climate models are showing that precipitation is going to be 10% worse or 20% worse. The engineer will know in that situation how to size their pipe appropriately for that condition.

At the other scale of the problem, when you put all of the assets together across a country as large as the United States or many other countries in the world, there we have cities, states, a nation that have legacy infrastructure that are massive in scale they go everywhere in the state. You know, there’s just lots of roads, lots of power lines, lots of water pipes, and so on. And if we then say we have to rehabilitate all of that, we have to make all of that stronger, then we have a problem.

There’s severe limitations to do that– not simply financial. They might be political. There might be nimbyism. There might be technological limitations. You know, how big should that levee be?

We may not be able to build it as big as that worst case climate model forecast shows. So there we have a different mentality that needs to kick in to sort of deal with this challenge of we simply aren’t going to rehabilitate everything fast enough.

IRA FLATOW: So give me some concrete ideas– no pun intended– of a vision of what we need to do now and a pathway to getting a more resilient system.

MIKHAIL CHESTER: The first is that where we can armor strengthen and harden our assets, we should do that. However, also recognizing the kind of limitations that I provided. So next, what I would recommend is a number of strategies that embrace the uncertainty of climate change and the reality of our inability to rehabilitate all of this infrastructure.

So one strategy that we often think about is what’s called “safe to fail.” And this is the idea that infrastructures have so far over the past century, let’s say, largely been designed as fail safe. We don’t want them to fail. When they do, it generally becomes somebody else’s problem. Like FEMA, for example.

Safe to fail is this idea that we allow at some point the environment to come in, recognizing that that’s going to create disruptions. We need to manage those disruptions, or be prepared to manage those disruptions, proactively.

IRA FLATOW: Give me an example? Give me an example of that?

MIKHAIL CHESTER: In the Netherlands, for example, there is the “Room for the River” Project. So the Netherlands is fairly low-lying across most of the country. And with sea level rise and storm surges, there was serious coastal flooding and inland flooding, riverine flooding risk. The Netherlands for a long time were building levees, trying to hold it back, but couldn’t keep up with the changing conditions that they had to respond to. So they decided to change their approach and allow room for the river– for riverine flooding. They essentially gave space for the river to flood.

And they said, farmers, you’re allowed to plant crops in this flood-prone region. If you do so, every so often there’s a high risk that your crops are going to flood. As such, we’re going to reimburse you for those crops. And the cost of reimbursing you when they’re lost is far less than the cost of building bigger and bigger levees, maintaining them in perpetuity.

Other strategies might include green infrastructure that, for example, might attenuate flooding. So if we instead of trying to hold back that flooding with, for example, concrete walls or levees, we might allow that flooding to come in, but provide a barrier that is green infrastructure that would absorb some of that flood, absorb some of the energy of that flood, and ultimately provide some attenuation of the impact as it comes through.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m talking to Dr. Mikhail Chester about how we engineer infrastructure for climate change. Can you do something similar with, let’s say, heatwaves? Can you really let the heat in in a controlled manner without hurting human health or infrastructure?

MIKHAIL CHESTER: A lot of the discourse around heat focuses on rehabilitation of buildings for air conditioning. What’s particularly concerning is not necessary in places like Phoenix, where virtually all buildings have some form of air conditioning. But instead, places in the North that simply have building stock that hasn’t needed air conditioning, and therefore doesn’t have all that much air conditioning.

The problem is that if you’re trying to, again, hold back the environment– in this case, heat– by deploying air conditioning everywhere, you have an energy problem, right? The footprint of that energy might be absolutely massive and you simply can’t deploy enough energy generating technologies to keep up with that. There are lots of great examples of letting the heat in.

And I’m not saying that this is always what we want to do, but I live down the road from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West Campus, which does not have air conditioning. And Frank Lloyd Wright designed innovative passive cooling designs into the buildings, strategic placement of windows, even construction of a neighborhood in the placement of buildings, and how they’re integrated with green infrastructure. For example, trees shading grass and so on can have huge impacts on the overall temperature experienced by that community. So there are ways in which you can allow the heat in.

Although, we have to be careful about when we’re going to do that, where we’re going to do that, and how we protect those who are most vulnerable.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Right. One last thing, because, to me, the obvious question is who’s going to pay for this? Are we going to be watching these as local projects one city, one county, one state, taking this project or the required changes on by themselves? Or are we going to wait for the federal government, like they built the interstate highway thanks to General Eisenhower in Europe. Are we going to see it that way? Or how do you see this all playing out?

MIKHAIL CHESTER: Somebody will pay for this. And I don’t have an answer of who that’s going to be. What I can say is that, again, evidence continues to accumulate that the costs of being proactive and maybe building in resilience earlier is going to be far less than the costs of waiting until these systems fail and paying for not only the infrastructure rehabilitation at that point, but also absorbing the economic damages that come along with it, which often are several orders of magnitude larger than the cost of rebuilding the infrastructure.

To an engineer in the field, the issue of climate change and infrastructure is in some ways a political. If I’m tasked with building a storm-water pipe under the road that can handle a certain amount of precipitation at the most extreme, and my job is to prevent my community from flooding, I simply at this point can no longer ignore climate change. It’s already playing out to some extent. And the evidence is there in front of me that it’s probably going to get worse in my community.

I simply have to absorb that information and make those decisions. And in our work, we continue to interact with engineers who are looking for answers, who are looking for help, who are looking for the resources to make sure that our infrastructure stay reliable. Not only that, but our communities and our nation thrive under this climate-impacted future.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s hope that the politicians listen a little bit more to the engineers.


IRA FLATOW: I’m sure you will. Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today.

MIKHAIL CHESTER: Thanks so much, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Mikhail Chester, Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University in Tempe.

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