Resiliency & Transportation Infrastructure

Resilience is an important objective of transportation agencies and those that fund them, and it is this objective that has them considering the effects of climate change the most. Resilience is defined by the US Federal Highway Administration as, “the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to changing conditions and withstand, respond to, and recover rapidly from disruptions”. BGC knows that the transportation sector recognizes that many threats are tied to the changing climate. Climate change processes and extreme weather represent stressors of increasing significance for transportation departments and railway companies. They already deal with closures, repairs, and other consequences from geohazard impacts and extreme weather on a regular basis. Exposure to geohazards and weather over the lifespan of an asset drives deterioration and decline in performance. As climate change increases the frequency and magnitude of many geohazards and extreme weather events, we are seeing the cumulative effects of these hazards accelerate the deterioration process for many transportation assets.  

Recent observed climate change impacts continue to highlight the need for more resilient transportation infrastructure. The July 2021 Glenwood Canyon debris flows in Colorado, which occurred over the burn area from the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire, was triggered by summer storms with intense rainfall. This resulted in the full closure of a segment of the I-70, a major interstate, for almost two weeks, followed by a one-lane reopening and months of repair. In November 2021, atmospheric rivers in the Pacific Northwest greatly impacted southern British Columbia and northwestern Washington State. The atmospheric rivers caused extensive damage along major transportation corridors, which at one point were so severe that they completely cut all of Vancouver and its surrounding areas off from the rest of Canada. 

Each time an event occurs as the result of climate change processes, transportation agencies must respond quickly to get infrastructure back up and running as soon as possible. “Build back better” programs are common in communities devastated by extreme climate events. Improving infrastructure resilience promises to do this, but the ‘how’ is still in question. Will up front investments yield desired performance in the future? 

The threat of climate change impacts is challenging for transportation agencies to manage, given budget limitations and a large backlog of improvement projects from infrastructure that are currently not meeting performance standards. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2021 US Infrastructure Report Card found that 43% of public roadways are in poor or mediocre condition, 42% of bridges are at least 50 years old, and 7.5% of bridges are structurally deficient. The 2019 Canadian Infrastructure Report Card states that 16.4% of roads and 12.4% of bridges and tunnels are in poor or very poor condition. These statistics show that there are many pre-existing needs and deficiencies in the transportation sector, and it is expected that these needs and deficiencies are likely to grow as we continue to experience the effects of climate change. 

BGC understands that the demand for improving resiliency of transportation infrastructure from climate change processes comes from many groups, from governments to everyday commuters. In the US, the 2022 administration is pushing to improve climate change resiliency by investing in infrastructure. And in Canada, some provinces have issued requirements to consider climate change in transportation projects, but how it is executed is left up to the agency or engineer with guidance remaining limited.  

The general public is also advocating for climate change consideration in the design of roads, highways, and bridges. Public interest in the understanding of the impacts of climate change on infrastructure is demonstrated by the success of citizen science projects like ‘Catch the King’ Tide, a high tide flood mapping project run by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.  

Building resiliency

The resilience of transportation systems can be viewed in the context of risk. Risk is the product of the likelihood of a hazard; the vulnerability of an asset, or the likelihood that it will suffer damage if impacted by a given hazard; the potential damage to the asset or users; and the likelihood that the hazard will impact the asset based on spatial-temporal conditions. Transportation infrastructure resilience can be improved by reducing the vulnerability of assets. 

BGC supports our clients to ensure resiliency of assets is top of mind on all of our projects. There are several methods to reduce the vulnerability of assets, such as building them stronger so they can withstand extreme loading conditions, or moving the asset out of the anticipated zone of impact. Climate change impacts on geotechnical design parameters for transportation projects are often difficult to predict or may be too subtle to reasonably incorporate in the design process. As a result, guidance for incorporating climate change into geotechnical design is often limited. Our experience in geohazards can help support this process and ensure the resiliency of your assets. 

Assessing & mitigating impacts

Climate hazard assessments are an important part of the planning process for transportation agencies who aim to improve resiliency of assets or reduce the likelihood of potential climate hazard impacts. Climate hazard assessments have been conducted by several US states to observe how changes in climate processes may impact transportation assets. Conducting these studies helps states identify corridors where climate and geohazard risk is the greatest and helps to develop risk-informed mitigation strategies. BGC recently completed one such study for the Colorado Department of Transportation and are positioned to assist future clients with these crucial assessments. 

Projects to mitigate impacts typically aim to reduce the likelihood or severity of impacts where climate change processes are expected to increase the frequency or magnitude of triggering events or increase the likelihood of hazards. Hazard assessments can also help prioritize slopes where transportation departments can use rockfall protection strategies. BGC’s geohazard risk assessment and management services to the transportation sector support our clients by helping them understand the links between climate and geohazard triggering and evaluating how climate change will affect geohazard risk along transportation corridors.  

Resilient asset management

Asset management systems, and in particular geo-asset management systems, are in the early stages of development across North America. BGC has many years of expertise and can help agencies reduce financial exposure within transportation systems. Asset management systems help transportation agencies identify where investments are needed, whether in maintenance, restoration, or reconstruction/replacement. Acting early to extend the life of these assets can add value and reduce large costs down the road. Climate change processes including warming temperatures, increased frequency and severity of rain and drought, fires, and flooding all cause additional stress to transportation corridors and can accelerate the deterioration process. We are here to help you assess the hazards posed by these processes by modeling and incorporating them into our asset management services. 

Emissions targets

The general focus of BGC’s work in the transportation sector is on providing reliable and efficient transportation systems, rather than on carbon footprint reductions, since carbon emissions have been implicit in the transportation sector for years. Currently infrastructure projects in Canada requiring Climate Lens assessments require evaluation and reporting of project-related carbon emissions. It is possible that these requirements could be expanded to a wider range of projects in the future. 

The transportation sector is responsible for a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions. In Canada, transportation is responsible for approximately 180 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year, and in the US, 1,900 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year (29% of total US emissions). There is significant interest from governments in reducing those numbers by improving public transit systems and increasing the percentage of electric vehicles on the roads. 

Transportation infrastructure construction and maintenance is also carbon intensive. Concrete structures, which are ubiquitous in transportation infrastructure systems, have a large carbon footprint as concrete production requires extremely high temperatures and releases carbon dioxide through chemical reactions. Heavy equipment used during construction also contributes to the carbon footprint of transportation systems. BGC’s expertise can help reduce these greenhouse gas impacts by considering efficient routes, alternatives to current construction methods, and design-to-build projects that are resilient from the start.

Supporting the transportation sector facing the effects of climate change

Climate change and resulting extreme weather events will continue and are projected to increase in frequency and severity in the future. We know that considering the resiliency of your transportation assets and the safety of its users are a key priority for many in the transportation sector. We are here to help you adapt by identifying the uncertainties and impacts associated with future loading conditions, which will support making better risk-informed decisions. BGC’s advanced skillset along with Cambio, our asset and geohazard management system, our geohazard risk assessment and mitigation work, and geophysics experience combine to provide the best-in-class support to our clients and future clients.  

BGC is dedicated to helping clients address climate change in their projects in ways that align with your priorities, budgets, and goals. Interested in hearing how? Contact our Climate Change Team.

Click here to explore our other Creating Resiliency articles.

Supporting resilient communities

Communities around the world are on the front lines of the impact of climate change. Extremes in temperature and precipitation and the associated hazards can result in extensive damage and disruption for communities.

BGC is dedicated to helping our clients understand the impacts of climate change on hazards and risks faced by people, critical infrastructure, assets, and the environment. Understanding cascading risks from the indirect effects of climate change is a critical piece to this, and one that BGC is uniquely qualified to support with our expertise in earth sciences and engineering.

Our Communities Sector Team is committed to partnering with our clients to create a path to measurable risk reduction for all communities. Climate change impacts all aspects of community interactions with the environment from natural hazards such as floods, wildfires, and landslides, to safe and reliable drinking water access. Building resilient communities and reducing earth related risks starts with a strong foundational understanding of climate processes and how those influence the hazards and risks that communities face.

Natural hazards

Severe and extreme weather, and weather-driven events, such as wildfires (and post-wildfire landslides), floods, debris flows, and other types of landslides can cause extensive damage and disruption to communities. Recent extreme weather events across the globe demonstrate the impacts of these types of events on communities and the environment. A recent example are the November 2021 atmospheric river events in British Columbia, Canada, which were the costliest natural disaster in the province’s history with $450 million in insured losses alone. Research has shown that human-caused climate change substantially increased the likelihood of the November 2021 atmospheric river event, the resulting precipitation, and flooding. Countless studies have also shown that extreme weather events are projected to occur more often, last longer, and be more severe over time in response to climate change.

At BGC we are dedicated to supporting clients working within communities to identify the potential hazards that exist, assess how the frequency or severity of such hazards may adjust in response to climate change, assess the associated risks, and support our clients to identify and implement cost-effective risk management strategies. Our Communities clients include all levels of government, First Nation and Indigenous communities and organizations, non-governmental agencies, developers, emergency response planners, and asset managers.

As BGC supports our clients to identify potential risks, there is also an increasing demand to support the development of processes to prioritize and address risks using approaches that are regionally consistent and economically sustainable. Our subject matter experts can help facilitate this process of risk identification, assessment, mitigation option development and optimization to maximize the potential benefits for the available investment.

Community planning and asset management

Lifecycle planning for community infrastructure and assets requires consideration of time spans that call for inclusion of climate change. As our populations increase, the demand to expand communities into new areas requires careful consideration of the potential risks from natural processes both in their current state and into the future. BGC’s expertise in geoscience and engineering can support clients to develop land-use and asset management plans that are resilient over the long-term.

BGC understands that important decisions on asset management (e.g., parks and community centres), critical facilities (e.g., hospitals, schools, retirement homes), and infrastructure (e.g., highways, water lines, bridges) need to consider the funding structures and cycles available to the groups responsible. BGC has extensive experience in translating needs into clearly defined goals, rationale, and outcomes for grant-funded projects from site-specific to regional scales.

We can help connect partners for regional studies and define projects that advance long-term risk management goals over multiple funding cycles. Our expertise in supporting private and public clients enables cross-sector sharing of BGC-developed tools and software applications that facilitate analyses over geographic scales and at a level of detail that would not be possible for individual clients alone.

BGC helps government, transportation, and land developers find effective structural and non-structural solutions to reduce water, earth and climate-related risks – and help define what “acceptable risk” means.  If infrastructure is not resilient to a changing climate, the need to repair and replace structures in advance of the end of design life could put significant financial strain on asset owners. BGC provides designs that are resilient to a changing climate over the service or design life of the structures to ensure they remain operational over the intended life span.

Water quality and quantity

Climate change can directly or indirectly impact communities’ groundwater supply in terms of quality and/or quantity. BGC brings knowledge and experience in groundwater management issues by providing applicable hydrogeological and/or geophysical techniques to monitor, model, and interpret the subsurface, as well as the surface water-groundwater interaction. BGC’s hydrogeological and geophysical teams offer unique and optimized expertise to work on challenges related to reduced groundwater supply, managed groundwater recharge and salt-water intrusion in coastal communities.

BGC is dedicated to helping our clients better understand the risks they face from the natural environment allowing them to make pro-active, informed decisions to address the risks and increase community resilience. Interested in finding out how? Contact our Climate Change Team.

Click here to explore our other Creating Resiliency articles.