Canadian Transportation Isn’t Ready for ‘New Normal’ of Extreme Weather
Largely submerged last week in news stories about the historic flooding along the Ottawa River, and rising water levels along the shores of Okanagan Lake, was a sobering federal report warning that Canada’s transportation infrastructure isn’t up to the new normal of climate-driven flooding.
Climate Risks and Adaptation for the Canadian Transportation Sector 2016, released last week by Transport Canada, catalogues the many impacts extreme weather is already having on the country’s extensive road, rail, air, marine, and urban transportation networks.
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Those systems must connect communities across 5,000 kilometres of Canadian geography from east to west, and 4,500 kilometres from north to south. “Industries such as manufacturing, energy, mining and agriculture, as well as services such as health care and retail trade, all depend on the reliable functioning of the transportation system,” the authors note. Meanwhile, Canada has already experienced almost all of the 1.5ºC increase in average temperatures above pre-industrial level that the Paris climate accord established as an aspirational goal.
The report canvasses observed changes in Canada’s weather as the atmosphere overhead responds to the additional heat and moisture flowing through it. Canada is seeing less ice and snow, more volatile seasons, and more—many more—extreme storms dropping outlandish amounts of snow or rain. Such extreme storm and rain events—the kind that provoke floods like those experienced earlier this month in Quebec—are twice as frequent as they were between 1950 and 2010.
The report provides a detailed accounting of the mounting impacts of those changes for each of the transportation sectors it examines. Road and rail washouts and localized flooding lead in the terrestrial sectors, the authors note. “Canada’s costliest disaster, the June 2013 floods in Alberta, resulted in an estimated $6 billion in damages and recovery costs, and saw 1,000 kilometres of roads destroyed and hundreds of bridges and culverts washed out.” [Cost figures for this month’s flooding in Quebec were not a part of this report. – Ed.)
Meanwhile, the volatility of temperatures—and their general warming, especially at the bottom end of the range—“contribute to infrastructure deterioration and operational challenges, especially in permafrost regions, but also across southern Canada due to changing freeze-thaw cycles during the winter, and heat waves during the summer.” Cities with electrified transit will experience more power losses during wind and rainstorms.
Airports face more freezing rain, strong winds, and temperatures hot enough to make runways soften and “bleed.” Impacts for shipping will begin with load-limiting low water levels on the upper Great Lakes.
The report, which explicitly focuses on adaptation instead of mitigation, offers a variety of avenues for reducing the worst dangers and inconveniences.
Some are humble: “changing pavement mixes for roads, using more heat-tolerant pavements, expanding culvert sizes, increasing maintenance, clearing debris from culverts, and clearing snow to preserve permafrost stability under vulnerable roads.”
Others recommendations are more systemic. That list includes “considering climate risks in broader organizational plans and requirements, changing infrastructure design requirements to include climate change considerations,” and “changing operations and maintenance practices.” Those changes might require a new degree of thoughtfulness and coordination among stakeholders, but “this category of approaches is often the most cost-effective to implement,” the authors observe.
Engineering changes “that enhance the physical resiliency of transportation networks or infrastructure components” are also recommended, as are better “monitoring and communications tools [that] can allow real-time monitoring of conditions” to support decision-making.