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Protecting US infrastructure from the elements

The US government has been modelling climate change scenarios to ensure resilience is built into cities.


Dramatic weather events involving wind, floods, droughts or wildfires can have a costly impact on a city’s aging infrastructure, including utilities, telecommunications networks and transportation systems. But there are more than just economic costs at stake. Such weather events can inflict tolls on both people and businesses, affecting lives and livelihoods for years to come.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has been using unique climate resilience modeling to better understand how to make this infrastructure more resilient. Argonne uses highly detailed, location-specific data as close as 4x4 kilometres – comparable to a high-resolution, close-up photo – that could strengthen a city’s resilience and long-term sustainability.


A core tenet of smart cities is environmental sustainability. But that future is uncertain without integrating the acceleration of climate change and its impact on infrastructure and networks into the sustainability plans and goals of cities nationwide. Doing so requires data at relevant spatial and time scales about the future and the uncertainties in the projections.

Environmental sustainability needs to integrate the acceleration of climate change and its impact on infrastructure

Argonne’s team has been working with public- and private-sector stakeholders to identify the types of climate projections that could be useful for risk and resilience. This interaction helps Argonne to understand the most productive methods for translating high-spatial resolution climate modelling to estimate changing climate risk to infrastructure, which in turn helps stakeholders understand costs and strategies for adaption, according to Rao Kotamarthi, Chief Scientist/Department Head, Atmospheric Science and Climate Research, at Argonne.


“These discoveries of the process, development of tools and the likely use of model projections to meet the desired outcome of the stakeholders should eventually lead to establishing a framework for supporting the inclusion of climate change into the sustainability and resiliency goals of smart cities,” Kotamarthi says.


Connecting data


For more than a year, Argonne has worked closely with the US telecoms and media conglomerate AT&T on a major modelling project that forecasts various future risks from changing climate on the south-east of the United States. The modelling helped AT&T to better understand its potential risks and how it could continue to ensure the resilience of its infrastructure in the area, especially given the variance of weather hazards across the region and even from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.


Argonne’s insights helped AT&T develop tools that inform data-driven decisions aimed at managing risk. The initial collaboration grew into a broader project that will model impacts beyond the south-east and across the country. In addition, this new project will focus not only on inland flooding caused by rainfall, coastal flooding from hurricanes and storm surge, but also risks from drought and wildfire, such as those devastating California in recent years.


"AT&T is building climate resilience because our customers, our employees and our communities depend on us," says Scott Mair, president of AT&T Technology & Operations. "By extending our work with Argonne National Laboratory to more states and including additional climate impacts, we can make more informed decisions, prepare our network for future extreme weather events and keep people connected when it matters most."


Kotamarthi and his team have developed the datasets to project the impacts of climate at the regional, local and even neighbourhood scales, using high-resolution models of physical climate and environmental processes, as well as a wide range of statistical methods for estimating uncertainty.


Drilling down


Just as picture quality for a smartphone camera improves if it has more and smaller pixels, Argonne’s new climate effort that previously looked at a 12x12 kilometre grid cells of land will soon drill down to 4x4 kilometre sections. In the case of flood data, as a result of the AT&T project, Argonne was able to zero in on 200-by-200-meter sections, thus providing extremely localized and actionable data.


AT&T, in turn, has been using these insights as input for its Climate Change Analysis Tool, which enables the company to project how changes in climate will impact company infrastructure and operations up to 30 years into the future. It recognised the climate model datasets, of the type developed by Argonne, may be of value to local governments. For that reason, the company provided the Southeastern U.S. data to the public for free, with plans in place to roll out data covering the entire country. When that is available, people nationwide will be able to access the national, high-resolution climate dataset, allowing them to do their own analyses and compare what they see with others.


“Many leaders may not realise how different the regional environments are until they see the models,” says Rudyard W. Sadleir, Argonne Business Development Executive, who has been working with AT&T on the project. “What Rao and his team are offering are collaborative solutions. They are collaborating with the partners to deliver specific solutions to their specific questions.”


Laying the foundations


Eugene Yan, a Principal Scientist in Argonne’s Environmental Science division, works mainly with the prediction of flood hazards at a resolution that addresses an individual residence, water-sensitive features, and public infrastructure in the urban system.


“We leverage our state-of-the-art climate and hydrologic models to predict the intensity and frequency of the flood hazard for the next 50 years or more under changing climate,” Yan says.

The projected long-term effects of climate change are critical to provide the foundation for smart planning

The team translates modelling results with the key factors that affect the urban system, the likelihood of consequences, and the implications of resilience of the urban system.

“The projected long-term effects, at the high resolution, are critical to providing scientific understanding and foundation for smart planning,” Yan adds. “Our work will help make informed city design that will be resilient for next 50 years or more.”


Besides learning what information from the climate modelling is useful to planners, the Argonne team has found other significant outcomes from such projects. “What a climate scientist thinks is useful may not be so interesting to an engineer or a city planner,” says Wall.


“So, we have focused more on what type of information, or what specific results from our modelling, would better inform these more applied decision requirements of end-users. What we learn from them helps us design or do better modelling going forward that leads to more actionable outcomes for our partners.”

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