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Climate Change Data Sources

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Major infrastructure projects, such as highway systems, bridges, and ports, are critically important to our health and safety and need to be built with future climate conditions in mind. The following article was first published in collaboration with the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, which created the Envision rating system for large infrastructure projects in conjunction with the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. Similar to the LEED rating system for buildings, Envision works to help infrastructure developers create more sustainable projects. We are happy to help ISI provide information about how to incorporate climate change projections into infrastructure projects.

Reprinted from the ISI blog

According to the National Climate Change Assessment, temperatures are increasing, sea level is rising, and snow and ice cover are decreasing worldwide. Accompanying these are increasing trends in extremes of heat and heavy precipitation events, and decreases in extreme cold. All of these trends are expected to get markedly worse.  They represent vulnerabilities to our communities if our infrastructure is not designed to withstand them.

The Envision climate and risk category addresses climate change from two angles: first by recommending the reduction of emissions contributing to climate change and second by assessing and addressing the risks.

The emissions subcategory calls for the reduction of greenhouse gasses and other air pollutants. Performance in these credits is demonstrated by meeting quantifiable metrics. The resilience subcategory is defined by more qualitative metrics. The first credit recommends a climate threat assessment. The following credits relate to the adaptation plan to address traps, vulnerabilities, and hazards. Local climate data and projections are necessary for the resilience subcategory.

Envision assessments occur at the project level, and the climate projections found in national resources are typically too coarse to be applied to a specific project site. Fortunately, more detailed climate change data is available for those who know where to find it and how to access and use it. The U.S. Department of the Interior has regional Climate Science Centers around the country that focus on making downscaled climate change data available for use within specific regions. Using data from the global climate models that are most relevant to their region, these centers are able to offer raw data at a finer scale for planning.

Advanced technical skills are necessary to turn the raw data into something that can be used in the design of infrastructure. Fortunately, it is getting easier to find support in this level of assessment, and it is also getting cheaper as the field improves on its data analysis techniques. Depending on the data available, an assessment might include threshold events (such as average number of heat wave days) along with expected changes to temperature, precipitation, vegetation, and sea level rise.

These projections are typically done at the city, county, or watershed scale and are useful for supporting community-wide, integrated adaptation planning. Several cities have already developed climate change projections for their local planning efforts and that information can be used in the design of local infrastructure projects. If a city has not yet undertaken such an effort, it is a relatively simple process for an infrastructure development firm to contract out for an assessment.

These assessments typically provide a comparison of current, mid-century, and end of century projections based on different emissions scenarios that allows designers to incorporate appropriate climatic changes based on the expected useful life of a particular project.

In adaptation planning, the project team will determine what vulnerabilities are associated with those changes: What does this particular change in temperature or precipitation mean in terms of this project in this location? Will this structure maintain its structural integrity under those projected conditions?  Will the infrastructure rebound and be functional following an extreme climate event?

Incorporating climate change considerations into infrastructure design and construction is a much needed change to our project approach, particularly because so much of our nation's aging infrastructure needs to be re-built in the next two decades. We need to be making smart investments of public and private resources as we move into an era of increasing natural disturbances.

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