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Vanderbilt hosts transportation adaptation to climate change summit

Posted by on Thursday, August 18, 2011 in Faculty, Research.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean speaking at climate change summit June 2, 2011Despite the uncertainties surrounding climate change, it is time to start developing effective strategies that will keep the nation’s critical infrastructure, including our transportation systems, running in the face of the adverse impacts that are expected.

This is the consensus that emerged from a landmark meeting that brought together major stakeholders in the freight transportation sector with climate change researchers to discuss the issue. The two-day leadership summit, co-sponsored by Vanderbilt University and the University of Memphis, was held June 2-3. 2011 in Nashville.

Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research have estimated the annual cost of floods, droughts, wind storms, freezes and other weather-related costs: $485 billion, about 3.4 percent of the gross national product. Some of those costs are associated with repairs to infrastructure damages, which may only be compounded when one considers the current $2.2 trillion needed for infrastructure improvements to meet today’s demands as stated in the 2009 American Society of Civil Engineers’ National Infrastructure Report Card.

Unless the nation takes appropriate measures, this cost is likely to increase in the future. “It appears to us that more extreme weather events – like floods and hurricanes – are becoming more frequent and pronounced and we need to be prepared to adapt to the prospect that what have been episodic events in the past become chronic features of our operational landscape in the future,” observed Craig Phillip, Chief Executive Office of Ingram Barge Company and a member of the conference steering committee.

The Mississippi River floods in April and May, which were among the largest and most damaging recorded along the waterway in the past century, the flooding on the Missouri that began in June and the above-average wildfire season that burned 1.3 million acres in the month of June alone in the Southern Plains and Southwest, are dramatic examples of the kinds of natural disasters that experts predict will become increasingly severe and frequent.
“Right now people are waking up to the fact that they will have to adapt, but very few are walking the talk,” commented Mark Abkowitz, co-organizer of the meeting and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt. “If we’re not careful and begin taking actions soon, we will reach the point where we will fall so far behind that playing catch-up will be difficult.”

The summit discussions identified several reasons for the current lack of activity: 1) uncertainty in the timing and magnitude of climate change; 2) insufficient knowledge of how these changes will impact the performance of critical infrastructure systems; 3) the succession of short-term crises that deflect attention and resources; and, 4) lack of political leadership.

Summit delegates identified several key initiatives that should be undertaken in the next five years:

  • Identify the critical infrastructure that is most vulnerable to damage and disruption. Of particular importance are bridges, highways, rail lines, airports and other key transportation facilities for which there are no alternatives;
  • Assess the cost of impacts to key infrastructure components. Putting a dollar sign on the potential damage for non-action helps determine the benefits of the proposed protective measures;
  • Develop better tools and models for performing risk assessments. Right now the climate models are more accurate at the global and regional scale, but they are not capable of predicting the local effects that planners need;
  • Define and communicate climate change problems in terms that decision makers can understand;
  • Improve dialogue and collaboration among stakeholders.

As noted by Abkowitz, “There is no reason why we should wait to get started down this path. As long as our approach remains flexible, we can adapt as better information becomes available.”