A Victorian bridge in London wrapped in silver foil to keep it cool. Railway workers in China sliding massive ice blocks across tracks to prevent them from overheating. Melting runways shutting down airports. These surreal images from extreme 2022 heat waves in Europe, Asia and the U.S. offer a gloomy preview of what we can expect in coming years and decades.
Climate change is a hard and uncomfortable reality. Heat waves, wildfires, floods, droughts, abnormal snow, storm surges, and excess rainfall are having an unprecedented impact on the condition and longevity of critical infrastructure such as roads, bridges, railway tracks, airport runways, power plants, telecom towers, and utility networks. The World Meteorological Organization reports that between 1970 and 2019, the number of extreme weather events increased by a factor of five, while economic losses from those events increased sevenfold. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction projects a further rise in natural disasters by 40% from 2015 until 2030.
In discussions about climate change, mitigation is usually the focus. But in addition to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions from the construction and operation of their assets, providers of critical infrastructure must develop effective ways to adapt to the changing climate. Wrapping a bridge in silver foil might actually be effective, but it is slow, reactive and not scalable. Innovative digital technologies can equip the infrastructure providers with effective adaptation tools.
Aging infrastructure assets have lower chances of withstanding today’s climate extremes, and replacing them requires massive capital investment and long lead time to design, construct and operationalize. Moreover, these systems are complex, interconnected and interdependent; a failure in one part of the infrastructure chain can have a domino effect on other industries. For sustainable economic growth and social well-being, critical infrastructure must become climate resilient. Resilience is often seen as an adversary to asset performance, but this mindset needs to change; asset operators must balance performance with resilience.
Potential for digital technologies in climate adaptation
Risk assessment and diagnosis of critical infrastructure are traditionally built on periodic inspections and aided by conventional monitoring and analytics. This results in a slow decision flow not suitable for today’s swiftly changing environment. To achieve higher resilience, infrastructure operators should adopt digital solutions for measurement, communication and computation to achieve automated, accurate and rapid decision making.
Continuous condition monitoring of assets at scale using advanced digital techniques such as LiDAR imaging, space-borne remote sensing and drone imagery are essential in predicting asset degradation. Such techniques can be both accurate and economical for such use cases as monitoring oil and gas pipelines, highways, long bridges, viaducts and tunnels.
These capabilities, paired with complex weather models and historical data, allow organizations to understand how changing climate patterns or extreme events like floods can accelerate the degradation of assets or even make them non-operational.
For example, with a forecast of increased rainfall, maintenance engineers can track changes in the flood plain on a map and combine that data with condition scores of roadways and railways assets to create a risk profile of affected asset stock. With such analysis, operators can take corrective measures and optimize the investments in their adaptation journeys.
Infrastructure service providers need to embed digital technologies across all four phases of resilience strategy and disaster management, as shown in the following figure.