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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Implementing “No Regrets Adaptations” for Transportation

Climate Change Experts Joel Smith and Russell Jones Discuss Lessons
from Storm, Steps that Can Be Taken to Harden U.S. Infrastructure

By Karl Vilacoba

About Joel Smith
and Russell Jones

Joel B. Smith

Joel B. Smith, a principal at Stratus Consulting in Boulder, Colo., has been analyzing climate change impacts and adaptation issues for more than 25 years. He is a member of the U.S. National Climate Change Assessment Federal Advisory Committee and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change. He has provided technical advice, guidance, and training on assessing climate change impacts and adaptation to government agencies, nonprofits and private sector agencies worldwide.

Russell W. Jones

Russell W. Jones is a managing analyst at Stratus Consulting. He has more than 20 years of experience as a geographic information systems/remote sensing consultant, providing extensive mapping, analysis, and modeling support in the areas of ecology, sociology, economics, and climate change. Jones worked on a 2010 study of the vulnerability of transportation infrastructure in New Jersey to climate change, and is currently working on a study of Superstorm Sandy, Irene and Lee’s impacts on the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region’s transportation infrastructure and strategies to protect these assets from extreme weather and climate change.

About Perspectives

Perspectives features interviews with professionals making news in the transportation world.

What has changed since Superstorm Sandy?

JS: Sandy was like a huge wakeup call, more than Katrina. New Orleans is relatively poor, there were issues with governance and preparedness, and it’s a city below sea level. Sandy took out maybe the most important economic region in the U.S., and I think there was a sense for many of us, not just in transportation, that wow, there is a lot of exposure to climate. Like a hurricane essentially taking a left turn, which doesn’t typically happen, and striking New Jersey head on; the huge heat waves, like the ones that hit Moscow a few years ago and Western Europe about 10 years ago; and the big drought that hit the south-central U.S. in 2012. There’s a sense that there’s definitely a lot of risk out there from climate—whatever the cause, whether it’s climate change or not.

What still needs to change?

Seaside Heights flooding

N.J. Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

Flood levels during Sandy the projected worst case scenarios

for 2100 given sea level rise, according to Jones. Above,

Seaside Heights, N.J., on Oct. 30, 2012

JS: We need to think a little harder about what’s possible under the climate that we know, particularly for critical systems that we can’t afford to have knocked out or can’t afford to have knocked out for long. We need to be aware of the risks of the present, and we also need to be aware of how those risks will change with climate change.

You take something like Sandy. In the future you’ll have higher sea levels, you could have stronger winds, more precipitation. If it happens 30 years from now, it would probably be worse. And this is all assuming that the system as it is doesn’t fundamentally change, that we’re just changing the averages. One of the big risks is that [climate change] could be changing what we call the circulation patterns—the way the winds move, the way the storm patterns move. Some scientists think it is, although it’s clearly not established. … But if these patterns change, and if recent events like the Moscow heat wave, Sandy, and the flooding we had [this year] in Boulder are indicative of this, I think we have much more serious problems.

Was there anything that you found particularly surprising about how the Northeast fared in the storm?

RJ: On the climate side, what was surprising was that the types of storm surge and flooding we saw was about the equivalent of our highest scenarios by 2100 under climate change and sea level rise. We were seeing an event today that would mimic our worst case scenario, essentially. And that was because we were just using average changes superimposed on the historic climate, not looking at some of the extremes that might not have been in the recent record.

Are there any states or regions that stand out to you as being ahead of the pack in making their infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather conditions? What are they doing differently?

Rickaway, N.Y., road damage

Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

When infrastructure is due for routine maintenance or must be

repaired from storm damage, transportation agencies should use

the opportunity to make it more resilient, Smith said. Above,

crews clear a road in Rockaway, N.Y. on Nov. 4, 2012.

JS: At the state level, California has probably done the most, and over the longest period of time. They put out climate change plans, they’re doing things like trying to reduce per capita water use by 20 percent. One of their big worries is a reduction in water supply, which would be very serious for them. But they’re also talking about things like moving coastal roads. Maryland has been doing quite a bit. They started working on sea level rise and have done a lot of state planning on that, and expanded into other areas.

At the municipal level, New York City really is the gold standard. There’s the New York City Panel on Climate Change, the way they’ve gone about it both in terms of the science assessment and the risk analysis—very carefully, very deliberatively, and over years, which is really what it takes. This is not something you just go in and out of, and say, “Oh, let’s do a quick study. We’re done.” It has to be a sustained and comprehensive commitment. Other cities have also done quite a bit, like Seattle, Chicago, and even smaller cities. There are number of smaller cities, like Keene, N.H., for example, who have been working on this for about 10 years.

What impact will the mandates for federal agencies to prepare for climate change have on planning and investment decisions?

JS: One of the real challenges for the federal government is [not only] looking at what they can do to promote adaptation, but also looking at policies and activities that may discourage adaptation. There are a lot of programs that one way or another might inhibit adaptation. For example, in Vermont, which got hammered by Hurricane Irene, my understanding is the federal law said yes, you can rebuild quickly, we’ll support that, but it has to be to the current level of protection you have. You cannot account for future changes. And people in Vermont were saying, “Well, wait a second. We’re getting hit with big events, we think floods may be larger in the future. We need larger culverts, more bridge protections and stronger roadways.”

Holland Tunnel repairs

Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

Smith rated New York among the best cities in the country in

terms of preparations for climate change. Above, workers

resume dewatering the Holland Tunnel on Nov. 2, 2012.

What new laws or policies are needed at the state or national levels to improve our preparedness for impacts of climate change?

JS: My sense is that you can’t say, “Always do X. Build a seawall or raise something up a foot.” What you need is a careful consideration of not just how well a project will perform under the known climate, but also consider the risks under climate change. Now that’s tricky to do, because we can’t make a forecast of what’s going to happen in climate change. We can give a range of possibilities. A lot of judgment is involved, and it’s not just a matter of, sea level is going to rise 2 feet and we have to do X to prepare for it. It’s also a question of what’s it going to cost? What’s feasible? Does it make sense to do it? If it’s expensive now, what can we do later? … There are a lot of ways to tackle this. But I think the point is to require that these things be thought through, particularly with long-term projects or with any decision that has a very long lifetime. Make sure that … we’re not building something or doing something that’s going to make us more vulnerable in the future.

What roles can metropolitan planning organizations play?

JS: The inclination of any good planner is to ask the climate questions. Have we adequately prepared for current climate? Are we adequately considering climate change?

RJ: When you are replacing a road in its normal lifespan, design the new road with consideration of climate change. If you have to replace a culvert, next time put in a little bit bigger of a culvert to account for the potential floods that you might be getting. … When it needs to be replaced, or after some disaster, build it better in the future to account for climate change.

What is the current state of practice for transportation agencies preparing for climate change?

JS: I think it’s in an early stage. Let me make a broader statement. There was a transportation day in Warsaw on Sunday [Ed.’s note: Smith returned a few days earlier from the U.N. Warsaw Climate Change Conference]. I happened to catch a session on adaptation, and they emphasized two things: operations and maintenance, and making sure you keep that up; the other thing is dealing with deteriorating infrastructure. … We’re just not investing enough in infrastructure.

Russ and I were part of a study here with Paul Chinowsky at the University of Colorado looking at bridges in the U.S. and their vulnerability to climate change. We looked at the national bridge inventory to see what bridges are currently deficient. And Paul, who is a technical expert on this, found that the deficient bridges would be more vulnerable to increased flood levels than bridges that were adequate. … These are what we call “no regrets adaptations” because clearly, we need transportation infrastructure for economic growth, for our vitality. How are we going to keep up with China and others who are building much better roads and better infrastructure? We’re letting ours deteriorate. Throw in climate change and it’s all the more reason to get on with it.

RJ: One thing that we did do with our bridges study was look at the costs of addressing future climate ahead of time versus waiting until later to do that. [We found] it would be less expensive to invest now than to wait.

JS: And that did not account for disruptions. Infrastructure provides a service. If you knock a bridge out and project all the headaches that causes—the lost wages, the inconvenience—that’s an even bigger cost. The harm to the economy and to people’s way of life. 

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