July 26, 2012

Extreme Weather Takes Toll on U.S. Infrastructure

From food production to electricity generation, the recent spate of extreme weather is taking a toll on U.S. infrastructure, affecting communities on the home front and countries abroad.

The United States is in the midst of the worst drought since 1956, according to the National Climatic Data Center. According to the center, 55 percent of the United States is experiencing some form of moderate to extreme drought, which is expected to continue for much of the year and is already affecting corn, soybean and other agricultural harvests. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that U.S. consumers could expect to pay 3 to 4 percent more for groceries next year as a result of agricultural decline.

The U.S. agricultural forecast could be particularly damming for global food prices and countries that rely heavily on agricultural imports. America is still considered the world’s breadbasket, and agricultural decline in the United States may lead to price spikes in countries abroad, particularly in developing countries that rely increasingly on agricultural imports, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. This could worsen food trends (e.g. famine and malnutrition) in these countries as families are forced to spend a higher percentage of their income on groceries, and may, in some places, exacerbate existing social grievances and provoke violence.

In the United States, a decline in water levels for some areas as a result of the recent drought is affecting transportation costs and electricity generation.  “[W]ater levels are falling in town reservoirs as well as major waterways like the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers,” according to The New York Times. “Barge and towboat operators have been reducing the size of their loads because of the low water, said Ann M. McCulloch, a spokeswoman for the American Waterways Operators. This means shipping operators, who transport a variety of goods from crops to gravel, have had to take more trips, increasing transportation costs that could be passed on to consumers.”

Power plants have also been forced to reduce their electricity output because the water pools they use as coolant are too hot, stirring some concerns about U.S. energy production. “In the Chicago area, a twin-unit nuclear plant had to get special permission to keep operating this month because the pond it uses for cooling water rose to 102 degrees; its license to operate allows it to go only to 100,” The New York Times reported. “According to the Midwest Independent System Operator, the grid operator for the region, a different power plant had had to shut because the body of water from which it draws its cooling water had dropped so low that the intake pipe became high and dry; another had to cut back generation because cooling water was too warm.”

The extreme heat has also taken a toll on the transportation infrastructure in the United States. In some places, roads have buckled from the extreme temperature and transportation operators have been forced to rethink their operating procedures. In Washington, for example, Metro is keeping a watchful eye on rail temperatures, reducing speeds in the record heat in order to avoid derailments from warped tracks. And in one strange incident, a U.S. Airways flight at Washington's National Airport sunk into the softened tarmac as it sat at the jetway in the extreme heat. 

Meanwhile, heat-related storms have already taken a toll on communities across the United States. June’s deadly derecho storm in the Mid-Atlantic region left millions without power, some for more than a week. In the wake of that stretch of storms, national guards units deployed to assist first responders that were over stretched, helping with everything from traffic control to checking on residents in communities left in the dark.

The recent events have some people wondering why the U.S. infrastructure is so vulnerable to extreme weather. In many ways the challenge derives in part from the assumptions undergirding the planning for some of the infrastructure systems. A lot of the existing infrastructure was designed to absorb the impact of these extreme weather events, just not on a regular basis. Indeed, the frequency with which these extreme weather events are occurring is outpacing the resiliency of some of these systems.  “‘We’ve got the ‘storm of the century’ every year now,’” one electric power official told The New York Times. These more frequent once-in-a-century storms are over-stretching the capacity of parts of the U.S. infrastructure, particularly the electric grid, to absorb the impacts of these extreme weather events: from heat waves and droughts to severe thunder storms.  

The recent challenges could become more acute as a result of climate change. Scientists expect that these types of extreme weather events may become more frequent and intense as a result of changes in the global climate. As The New York Times reports, “Leading climate models suggest that weather-sensitive parts of the infrastructure will be seeing many more extreme episodes, along with shifts in weather patterns and rising maximum (and minimum) temperatures.”

In the years ahead, U.S. policymakers will face tough choices about how to adapt the current system to absorb climate change. And in some cases, U.S. officials may need to assess areas that cannot absorb or adapt to projected climate impacts and require whole sale change. 

Photo: A Washington resident assesses the damage from the deadly derecho storm in June 2012. Courtesy of flickr user woodleywonderworks.