Future Forward: Integrate Climate Risks into Existing Processes
This page profiles innovative and impactful applied research in civil and structural engineering to spur continuing thought and dialog to create a better industry. These profiles are based on interviews, and the opinions and statements are those of the subject and are not necessarily shared or endorsed by this publication.
Conversations about sustainable infrastructure and how to plan and build for more-frequent extreme weather are critical, and Lauren Seydewitz hopes her research can help address how infrastructure can better “weather” the environment. She’s currently preparing guidance to assist airports, in particular, with using their own processes to account for climate risks, as part of a Transportation Research Board (TRB) funded Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) project.
“The topic we’re looking at now is integrating climate risk into planning-management systems for airports, but it’s absolutely applicable to any organization that does long-term planning,” notes Seydewitz.
Environmental catastrophes were devastating in 2017 and included several major hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes that caused billions of dollars in damage to infrastructure assets. Although many improvements and upgrades need to be made, Seydewitz notes that current building codes and community-level development plans should be applauded for helping so many to survive the disasters.
“Many current infrastructure assets are at their ‘end of life’ and may have been identified as ready to be upgraded or replaced,” she adds. “An extreme weather event pushes the limits of these older assets and can cause considerable damage.”
Whether existing assets survive such stresses or not, the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe is an ideal time to reassess the status of all relevant assets and look for a better overall solution going forward.
Resilient, Gray and Green Infrastructure
Seydewitz defines resilient infrastructure as “enduring, regardless of the type of conditions that it’s subjected to,” and that most assessments start with “gray infrastructure” (i.e., buildings, pipes, culverts, etc.).
“We need to look at ‘green infrastructure’ and how can we start to balance more of what nature does so well with things such as wetlands and flood storage that we have from a zoning perspective,” she says. “We prioritize from a planning perspective, and that has negatively impacted and put additional stress on our gray infrastructure.”
A Time for Improvements
As tragic as the recent environmental disasters have been, she believes they can be a “wake-up call” that leads to much-needed improvements that can have major benefits, if the lessons are learned.
For managers or directors of an organization faced with picking up the pieces and moving forward, that often starts with emergency response, but there’s also an opportunity to plan farther ahead and use more of a comprehensive, systematic planning approach.
After a major event, she recommends, among other things, going through a plot analysis to examine the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Planners and decision makers should ask questions such as the following:
• What are the likely climate risks that may be impacted?
• What are the extreme weather risks?
• What are the hazards that our infrastructure may be dealing with 25-30 years from now and longer?
“Many of our assets have a lifespan of 50 to 75 years, if not longer,” she notes. “That’s a long time, and there are many different conditions that may be considered in thinking through the materials we’re using.
“It’s not just rebuilding what we did before, but taking the opportunity to build smarter,” she adds. “Think about how does this particular site—this particular asset—interact with others by geography and then within the entire system.”
If flooding is going to be an issue, are you raising up generators so they’re above the level of flood risk you may have? If it’s heat, is the pavement you’re selecting going to endure those extreme temperatures for a longer period of time?
Take a Step Back
Seydewitz empathizes with the directors, managers and operational staff who need to respond to the various stresses. But in the wake of a disaster, she recommends they take a step back and look at the overall picture going forward. When rebuilding, do it smarter and better. For every dollar spent now, proper planning can save $10 from a recovery perspective.
“It’s not just cost from a dollar and cents perspective; we also have environmental costs we need to consider when we rebuild in these flood zones,” adds Seydewitz.
To keep the conversation going, she stresses that there needs to be thorough documentation.
“Inevitably, the emergency will fade, and lessons will be relearned,” she adds. “But make sure to take the opportunities to learn from others who experience something similar or, when you do your own vulnerability assessment, highlight the risks that may be applicable, that you have a greater risk for locally. Look at that and how others may have dealt with it.
“It’s important to be prepared so we can decrease exposure for ourselves, our environment and each other.”