A new report from the National Research Council (NRC) warns that the nation’s transportation system – roads, ports, railroads, and airports – all stand to suffer substantial damage or destruction as a result of climate change.

Increased rain, more intense storms, ground thawing in Alaska, and rising sea level all are expected to take their heavy tolls. The report’s authors caution that those working on transportation infrastructure must ensure that the system operates and adapts as a network, with “redundancies” or alternative routes for railroads and highways in emergencies.

Such warnings have been published before. One prominent set of reports in 2001 was the “Climate Change and a Global City” series by Columbia University’s Earth Institute for the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

But this year the American public seems more primed to receive with open minds such technical assessments about how climate change will alter daily life throughout the United States. The media and the Web were abuzz with announcements of the NRC report. Some of the items made it sound as if no one had ever thought about these risks before, as in the brief on the environmental site grist.org echoing an Associated Press dispatch, saying, “Climate change is likely to wreak havoc on U.S. transportation infrastructure … think bridge joints weakened by too-high temperatures, flooded tunnels, shipping disrupted by heavy storms, roads threatened by erosion, and much, more more!”

The report (pdf) itself, “The Potential Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Transportation,” prepared by the Transportation Research Board for NRC, part of the National Academy of Sciences, is a dry but eye-opening set of statistics and warnings. It is 218 pages long, reflecting the authors’ attempts to summarize the latest climate change science and to use recent historic storms to show that the transportation infrastructure should reinforce and prepare. Important points include that the coasts, with rising populations, are vulnerable, and that the nation’s transportation infrastructure was built on a set of old assumptions about weather patterns. The report notes also that policy makers should reconsider the common practice of abandoning old railroad routes, stressing the importance of having alternatives in emergencies.

The report brings up a little-discussed (among the general public) set of predictions that has been kicking around for years – that is, that the Arctic will be opened up for easy shipping routes. Stay tuned for more on that in the future.

The document does not tell public infrastructure leaders in any region exactly what they should do. However, the authors use several examples of extreme storms like Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and high rains in Seattle and Boston to illustrate that no region will escape the changes to come.

Various news outlets reported on the study on March 11 and 12, including television, print, and web outlets. Most carried just short dispatches based on the National Academies press release or reprints of other reporting distributed through the Associated Press.

New York Times reporter Cornelia Dean wrote a more comprehensive piece, describing the transportation report and two other new reports on climate change and infrastructure: one about Miami Dade County, Florida, released last fall; and a government report now in draft form about sea-level rise.

Dean interviewed Henry G. Schwartz, Jr., the chairman of the National Research Council, who said that leaders should begin surveying their transportation networks because careful preparations will require many years and will be very costly, in the billions of dollars.

Associated Press reporter Randolph E. Schmid, in an article reprinted around the country, outlined the several conditions projected to increase – besides rising sea level and rising temperatures, more heat waves, rainstorms, and increased intensity of hurricanes. He reported that California will see more wildfires “that can destroy transportation infrastructure.”

Schmid’s AP piece does not get into the still-debated aspect of hurricane intensity. But he does mention the benefits that could result from the open seas for shipping in the Arctic.

The web-based watchdog climatesciencewatch.org did not carry news of the National Research Council report, but it recently has publicized what it says is the quiet release of another study, by the U.S. Department of Transportation, on how climate change will disrupt transportation in the Gulf Coast region. The group claimed that the government released the report quietly hoping that it would not gain much attention.

Christine Woodside

Christine Woodside is a writer and editor based in Deep River, Connecticut. She started her career in 1981 in Philadelphia, first as a news clerk at the Philadelphia Inquirer and then as associate editor...