The Pacific Northwest faced several record-breaking days of sweltering weather during the first week of July. Temperatures in Portland, Oregon reached 116 F, while Lytton, British Columbia broke the Canadian record for highest recorded temperature at 121 F. These heat waves have ramifications for both residents and the underlying infrastructure that allows them to live their everyday lives. Unnatural temperature fluctuations – including high heat in cooler climates and cold in warmer ones – can take a toll on infrastructure.
On the other end of the thermometer, cold snaps in largely warmer areas of the United States have caused large-scale power outages and damages to the energy supply system this year. In Texas, a cold front brought 205 consecutive hours of at or below freezing temperatures to an area of the country famous for its strong heat. Frozen conditions caused rolling blackouts, as both energy demand skyrocketed and power generation sputtered.
Excessive heat and unseasonable cold can be devastating to infrastructure. It is not that infrastructure cannot be built to withstand extreme heat or subzero colds, but the same piece of infrastructure is rarely resilient to both swings. Power plants, roadways, and other infrastructure is generally engineered for a particular climate, making roads in Oregon and Texas very different from one another. The same Northwestern heat wave would have made little impact on Texas roads, while the Texan winter may have been just another day to the winterized grid in Oregon.
Extreme heat can damage and erode crucial infrastructure like roads, bridges, and railroads and lead to substantial costs to state and local governments. Both directly, through melted electrical cables and buckled roads, and indirectly through the delays in public transportation due to buckling, heat waves can lead to large-scale structural problems. In order to counteract both heat waves and cold fronts that may become more frequent due to climate change, retrofitting existing infrastructure to be more climate resilient could help state governments reduce maintenance costs in the long term.
There are two main materials comprising the roads and bridges in the United States: asphalt and concrete. For concrete, thermal cracking occurs naturally, however a greater range of temperature fluctuations results in concrete losing its structural integrity faster. Rapid expansion of concrete due to heat during the spring and summer months, combined with the temperature decrease in winter means that more frequent maintenance will need to be performed on affected infrastructure. Projections of total costs to state and local governments exceed $1 billion for several individual states as of 2020 for heat wave-related infrastructure repairs.
For roads and other transportation infrastructure that is constructed out of asphalt, large temperature fluctuations pose a similar threat. Like concrete, high temperatures can cause asphalt to expand, eventually developing cracks. Water and other liquids can break down layers in the asphalt, eventually causing it to give way when a large amount of weight is applied to the asphalt from a passing vehicle. Asphalt can be more porous than concrete depending on the grade, so allowing more water into a cracked area can cause further erosion.
In more modern bridges, expansion joints ensure that asphalt can expand and contract during temperature fluctuations. However, in places like the Pacific Northwest that normally have a very moist and temperate climate, the infrastructure has not been constructed to be adaptable to large temperature changes. State governments have normally planned their infrastructure to be able withstand regional weather patterns and events. With climate change potentially causing larger temperature swings or more frequent and severe storms, state governments will need to adhere to a higher standard of infrastructure resilience.
The recent cold weather in Texas in February also demonstrated the need for existing infrastructure to be made climate resilient. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) must ensure future infrastructure will be able to withstand large changes in temperature, especially cold weather. This also means ensuring a reliable energy mix that can be depended on regardless of sunshine, wind patterns, and temperature.
In Texas, rapidly decreasing temperatures led to instrument failures at natural gas, coal, and even nuclear facilities, which contributed to spikes in energy costs as the state imposed rotating blackouts. Wind became less reliable and failed to account for the anticipated percentage of the state’s energy mix, as traditional sources also struggled to maintain base load.
Texas oil and gas pipeline and power infrastructure were not built to withstand such low temperatures setting in so quickly. The depth of the gas pipe, high longitudinal stress capability, and building materials used for the pipe construction all have an impact on whether it can withstand frost heaving. This occurs when ice forms beneath the surface of the soil due to freezing conditions and can result in pipeline displacement as the ice expands upward and outward underground. Power generation facilities even experienced reliability issues due to the cold, partially caused by a disrupted supply of energy resources and partially due to conditions in the plants themselves.
Texas infrastructure is not fundamentally flawed, but much like the Pacific Northwest’s infrastructure was not built to withstand extreme heat, Texas’ infrastructure was not constructed accounting for severe cold. The cost to invest in resilient infrastructure capable of withstanding temperature swings in both directions is high, and to-date has not been economically or politically feasible. Wind turbines can operate in Canada’s harsh winter climate, but Texas rarely sees those conditions, so building turbines to those specifications is unnecessary. Likewise, roads in the north do not contend with high temperature conditions on a regular basis like southern roads, so finding the balance is a struggle.
In order to mitigate further damage from both extreme heat and cold, infrastructure throughout the United States may need to be reviewed for its climate resiliency. The costs to both human life and infrastructure quality in the Pacific Northwest and Texas this year were due to energy and transportation infrastructure being built only for their respective regional and historical temperatures. In order to shrink long-term maintenance costs and limit disruptions from future climate events, policymakers may consider minimum climate resilience standards for future infrastructure development.
Written by Roy Mathews, Public Policy Associate
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.