Extreme weather phenomena and climate change challenge our transport system

At the turn of the year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) International Transport Forum (ITF) published a research report on the challenges posed by extreme weather phenomena and climate change to the transport system, the transport infrastructure in particular. The report Adapting Transport to Climate Change and Extreme Weather: Implications for Infrastructure Owners and Network Managers lists nine recommendations for OECD Member Countries for mitigating and reducing the adverse effects.

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd was one of the main authors of several chapters of the report, and the EWENT project that VTT coordinated a few years ago served as an important source of information for the report.

The results of the EWENT project showed that the damage caused by extreme weather could account for up to 0.15% of the EU Member States’ GDP. Every year!

The first step to take is to react immediately: Act now!

The challenges must be acknowledged now, and it is time to start processing them in the long term at once. By means of reports and seminars alone the matters will not advance as concretely as they should.

The way we have designed and built our transport system (as well as many other infrastructure systems) is based on old information. Infrastructure refers to the basic structures with life cycles extending across generations that must pass from father to son, grandson, and even great-grandson.

The transport infrastructure – ports, railways, airports, roads, streets – must be designed preparing for strain caused by increasingly stronger weather phenomena. The most important starting point for such design is the location. For example, if there is hint of risk of flooding, seek for higher ground. If flooding waters stop traffic every year or a few years apart, something is wrong. One can be prepared to face the same headache in the coming years, and even in an increasing extent.

Investing in preventive maintenance is an absolute requirement as part of preparedness: the existing structures must be maintained in such a way that the stress of weather will not damage them before the end of their natural life cycle. Maintenance usually costs less than building new structures. Sometimes, however, it may be necessary to renew the threatened basic structures that require expensive maintenance. Searching and operationalising the optimal strategy is a complex process, where research will help.

The infrastructure budgets are scarce almost everywhere in the world, and Finland is no exception. Keeping infrastructure safe and functional is swallowing an increasing share of our resources. If we do not make the necessary investments and take care of the maintenance, the future generations will need to pick up the tab.

Second recommendation: Prepare for more frequent problems caused by weather, and even failure of transport infrastructure in certain places

If all traffic into and out of a city mainly takes place through one passage or bridge, that bottleneck may turn out to be a strategic problem. All eggs should not be put in one basket, but there should be alternative routes or modes of transport available even if serious phenomena hit the area.

This strategy does not apply to extreme weather phenomena only, but also to other threats, such as terrorism or vandalism. Also it is wise to have modal options – when rails fail, the roads must offer the alternative, and vice versa.

Third recommendation: Make business continuity plans

When the transport system fails, one must know what to do next, who needs to be informed, and which chains of action to launch. When there are floods in Ostrobothnia, army engineers are needed to blow up the ice dykes. As a rule, Finnish authorities have good business continuity plans, and the local fire brigades and rescue services are on the ball together with other actors.

But are the resources scaled in such a way that preparations have also been made for more frequently occurring and intensive problems?

Technology and its use plays an important role

Technology plays a major role in all the three strategic activities described above.

  • The technologies and architectures for disseminating and sharing information serve the needs of coordinated co-operation, which is needed when dealing with extreme weather phenomena. In some contexts, novel ideas such as block chains could turn out to offer new possibilities for information exchange.
  • Sensorization and real-time monitoring of the basic structures and environment enable early reaction and minimisation of damage. New asset management philosophies and tools are needed to make use of modern technology, old ways of thinking might not work.
  • Risk management methods, system analyses and scenario techniques are tools that provide means for managing resilience, or resistance and operational reliability. Decision-makers and analysts need to start using these tools for real, and not only for academic exercises.

I would dare to say that even if the threat of adverse effects sounds bad, the challenges ahead could provide Finnish know-how a new stepping stone – we have the right mix of technological and organisational competence.

More information

Pekka Leviäkangas VTT

Pekka Leviäkangas, Principal Scientist

I will present the nine key recommendations for action made in the OECD publication in a series of three blog articles during this spring. In each of the articles, I will discuss the recommendations personally or in collaboration with my colleagues.

One thought on “Extreme weather phenomena and climate change challenge our transport system

  1. Pingback: Extreme weather phenomena and climate change challenge our transport system – part 2 | VTT Blog – VTT:n Blogi

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