Federal Report Warns of Costly Impacts to U.S. Cities from Changing Weather Extremes

A new report from Oak Ridge National Laboratory warns that urban areas in the U.S. "are vulnerable to extreme weather events that will become more intense, frequent, and/or longer-lasting with climate change." The authors say that the "true consequences of impacts and disruptions" associated with those events "involve not only the costs associated with the clean-up, repair, and/or replacement of affected infrastructures but also economic, social, and environmental effects as supply chains are disrupted, economic activities are suspended, and/or social well-being is threatened." They note that the risks "can be substantially reduced by developing and implementing appropriate adaptation strategies."

 

Above: Flood waters surround houses in Vestal, New York, on September 10, 2011. Source: Chuck Haupt/American Red Cross.

The analysis, Climate Change and Infrastructure, Urban Systems, and Vulnerabilities [PDF] (February 29, 2012) is a report to the U.S. Department of Energy in support of the National Climate Assessment. "For this study, the emphasis is on built infrastructures (as contrasted, for instance, with social infrastructures)," the report explains. "Such infrastructures include urban buildings and spaces, energy systems, transportation systems, water systems, wastewater and drainage systems, communication systems, health-care systems, industrial structures, and other products of human design and construction that are intended to deliver services in support of human quality of life."

A second related report supported by NASA, U.S. Cities and Climate Change: Urbanization, Infrastructure, and Vulnerabilities, will cover urban impacts and vulnerabilities more broadly. It is not yet publicly available.

"Cities and towns across America already are seeing changes in weather extremes and experiencing the disruptive consequences," says Keya Chatterjee of WWF. "This report describes the growing threat to our communities, and demonstrates that the threat will be much greater in the long term if we do not sharply reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Washington’s inaction on climate change is leaving our cities dangerously exposed. Now is time for cities to address these challenges, and for citizens of every city and town to begin building a safer, healthier and happier future."

Major Findings of the Report

"Regarding implications of climate change for infrastructures in the United States, we find that:

  • Extreme weather events associated with climate change will increase disruptions of infrastructure services in some locations
  • A series of less extreme weather events associated with climate change, occurring in rapid succession, or severe weather events associated with other disruptive events may have similar effects.
  • Disruptions of services in one infrastructure will almost always result in disruptions in one or more other infrastructures, especially in urban systems, triggering serious cross-sectoral cascading infrastructure system failures in some locations, at least for short periods of time
  • These risks are greater for infrastructures that are:
    • Located in areas exposed to extreme weather events
    • Located at or near particularly climate-sensitive environmental features, such as coastlines, rivers, storm tracks, and vegetation in arid areas
    • Already stressed by age and/or by demand levels that exceed what they were designed to deliver.
  • These risks are significantly greater if climate change is substantial rather than moderate

Regarding implications of climate change for urban systems in the United States, we find that:

  • Urban systems are vulnerable to extreme weather events that will become more intense, frequent, and/or longer-lasting with climate change
  • Urban systems are vulnerable to climate change impacts on regional infrastructures on which they depend
  • Urban systems and services will be affected by disruptions in relatively distant locations due to linkages through national infrastructure networks and the national economy
  • Cascading system failures related to infrastructure interdependencies will increase threats to health and local economies in urban areas, especially in locations vulnerable to extreme weather events
  • Such effects will be especially problematic for parts of the population that are more vulnerable because of limited coping capacities

Regarding implications of climate change for infrastructure and urban system risk management strategies in the United States, we find that:

  • Risks of disruptive impacts of climate change for infrastructures and urban systems can be substantially reduced by developing and implementing appropriate adaptation strategies
  • Many of the elements of such strategies can be identified based on existing knowledge
  • In most cases, climate-resilient pathways for infrastructure and urban systems will require greater flexibility than has been the general practice, along with selective redundancy where particular interdependencies threaten cascading system failures in the event of disruptions
  • Revising engineering standards for buildings and other infrastructures to accommodate projected climate change is a promising strategy
  • In some cases, especially if climate change is substantial, climate-resilient pathways will require transformational changes, beyond incremental changes.

Regarding implications of climate change for infrastructure and urban system research needs in the United States, we find that:

  • Improving knowledge about interdependencies among infrastructures exposed to climate change risks and vulnerabilities will support strategies and actions to reduce vulnerabilities
  • The challenge is to recognize that, although uncertainties about climate change and payoffs from specific response strategies are considerable, many actions make sense now, such as developing monitoring systems to support assessments of emerging threats to infrastructures and urban systems
  • A high priority should be given to verifying and validating the report’s assessment findings, especially where the current evidence is not strong.

Regarding a continuing assessment process for climate change and infrastructure and urban systems in the United States, we find that:

  • A self-sustaining long-term assessment process needs a commitment to improving the science base, working toward a vision of where things should be in the longer term
  • Capacities for long-term assessments of vulnerabilities, risks, and impacts of climate change on infrastructures and urban systems will benefit from effective partnerships among a wide range of experts and stakeholders, providing value to all partners involving both structural and non-structural (e.g., operational) options."

Above:Wallow Fire, Arizona, 18 June 2011. Source:Jayson Coil

Background

The report and five others just posted by U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) are part of a much larger collection of "technical inputs" submitted to the USGCRP by various contributors as part of the National Climate Assessment process. The technical input reports collectively constitute the core of material upon which the next major National Climate Assessment will be based. The six technical input reports released thus far are available on the USGCRP Web site and others will be posted at the same location as they become available.

An assessment report to the President and Congress is required under Section 106 of the Global Change Research Act of 1990. A public review draft of the assessment report will be released in December 2012 and the final report is expected in late 2013.

WWF is sponsoring a competition among cities, the Earth Hour City Challenge, to encourage them to prepare for increasingly extreme weather and to promote renewable energy. U.S. cities that participate will receive resources and gain recognition for their efforts to curb carbon pollution and prepare their communities for the harmful consequences of climate change.Learn more about the City Challenge

Online Resources

Climate Change and Infrastructure, Urban Systems, and Vulnerabilities [PDF] (February 29, 2012). Report to the U.S. Department of Energy in support of the National Climate Assessment.

WWF Climate Change Blog:

Building NYC’s Resilience to Climate Change With Green Infrastructure. State of the Planet blog from the Earth Institute, 13 January 2012.

World Disaster Reduction Campaign: Making Cities Resilient: 'My City is getting ready!' campaign

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