Climate Change and its Potential Impacts on Transportation

Climate Change and its Potential Impacts on Transportation

Source: adapted from National Research Council (2008) Potential impacts of climate change on U.S. Transportation. Transportation Research Board.

Elements associated with climate change have an array of potential impacts on transport operations and infrastructures.

  • Heat waves. In addition to providing stress on human physiology, impairing activities such as the construction and maintenance of transport infrastructure, heat waves can impact air operations by requiring longer take-off distances because of lower air density. This creates a similar effect of being at a higher altitude. An airplane taking off at a sea level airport at an ambient temperature of 37 degrees Celsius would operate in conditions similar as if it was at an altitude of 800 meters. Heat stress can negatively impact transport infrastructure, such as the softening of pavement, which can then be substantially damaged by vehicle circulation.
  • Rising sea levels. Both because of an increase in the average seawater temperature and releases from other water masses (e.g. ice caps), evidence underlines an ongoing rise in sea levels. In coastal areas, transport operations can be impaired by the temporary flooding of key infrastructures. When an urban area is flooded, circulation is disrupted with negative economic outcomes because of the high concentration of activities. This obviously presents a risk for coastal areas, particularly for coastal transport infrastructure such as ports.
  • Increase in intense precipitation events. May impair air travel (e.g. turbulence), road circulation (hazardous driving conditions), and damage transport infrastructure through flooding. Further, events such as thunderstorms can temporarily shut down airport operations, creating system-wide disruptions.
  • More frequent hurricanes. Hurricanes impose substantial disruption of transport operations over a wide area, including maritime shipping and air operations. Increase the risk of coastal infrastructure damage and failure and the time it takes to bring back operational conditions.
  • Increase in Arctic temperatures. The receding ice cover over the Arctic may extend the shipping season in the region and improve the accessibility to Arctic resources, such as mining and energy. There is also the potential to use shorter Arctic shipping routes, shortening the maritime shipping distances within the Northern Hemisphere. However, increasing Arctic temperatures are also disruptive for the land connectivity of the region, with a shorter time span for ice roads which are crucial for supplying remote communities and resource extraction operations.