Road with pothole
(Photo credit: Schlaglöcher in Essen / CC BY 2.0)

Most road surfaces in the U.S. look pretty similar, so you might think they’re all the same. But they’re not. Transportation engineers design asphalt roads specifically for the local climate, considering temperature, precipitation, and humidity.

“The material that we use in Arizona will be different than what we use in Minnesota,” says Shane Underwood of North Carolina State University. “The material in Arizona will be stiffer; it’ll be able to withstand the high temperatures much better. Whereas the material in Minnesota will be a bit more flexible and accommodate the cold weather much better.”

Underwood says that when choosing materials, engineers rely on climate data. But that data is often decades old. So as the climate warms, engineers may unintentionally make poor choices.

Underwood’s research suggests that about a third of the roads built in the U.S. in the last 20 years were not made of appropriate materials. So some may wear out faster than expected.

“Instead of a pavement lasting 20 years, maybe it only lasts 15 years, and maybe it has more maintenance,” he says.

That means unexpected costs for communities. So when designing roads, Underwood says it’s important to account for the changing climate.

Reporting credit: Stephanie Manuzak/ChavoBart Digital Media.

Diana Madson

Diana Madson contributed regularly to Yale Climate Connections from 2014 to 2021. She enjoys exploring U.S.-based stories about unexpected and innovative solutions to climate change. In addition to her...