As the weather spins into the post-normal — more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) — our aging infrastructure is failing, and we are going to see much more serious disruptions in the future because our governments a/ don’t want to talk about the climate (too scary) and b/ are laying off the workers that we should be using to fix the power lines, train tracks, roadways and bridges.
Matthew Wald and John Schwartz, Rise in Weather Extremes Threatens Infrastructure via NYTimes.com
The frequency of extreme weather is up over the past few years, and people who deal with infrastructure expect that to continue. Leading climate models suggest that weather-sensitive parts of the infrastructure will be seeing many more extreme episodes, along with shifts in weather patterns and rising maximum (and minimum) temperatures.
“We’ve got the ‘storm of the century’ every year now,” said Bill Gausman, a senior vice president and a 38-year veteran at the Potomac Electric Power Company, which took eight days to recover from the June 29 “derecho” storm that raced from the Midwest to the Eastern Seaboard and knocked out power for 4.3 million people in 10 states and the District of Columbia.
In general, nobody in charge of anything made of steel and concrete can plan based on past trends, said Vicki Arroyo, who heads the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, a clearinghouse on climate-change adaptation strategies.
Highways, Mr. Scullion noted, are designed for the local climate, taking into account things like temperature and rainfall. “When you get outside of those things, man, all bets are off.” As weather patterns shift, he said, “we could have some very dramatic failures of highway systems.”
Adaptation efforts are taking place nationwide. Some are as huge as the multibillion-dollar effort to increase the height of levees and flood walls in New Orleans because of projections of rising sea levels and stronger storms to come; others as mundane as resizing drainage culverts in Vermont, where Hurricane Irene damaged about 2,000 culverts. “They just got blown out,” said Sue Minter, the Irene recovery officer for the state.
In Washington, the subway system, which opened in 1976, has revised its operating procedures. Authorities will now watch the rail temperature and order trains to slow down if it gets too hot. When railroads install tracks in cold weather, they heat the metal to a “neutral” temperature so it reaches a moderate length, and will withstand the shrinkage and growth typical for that climate. But if the heat historically seen in the South becomes normal farther north, the rails will be too long for that weather, and will have an increased tendency to kink. So railroad officials say they will begin to undertake much more frequent inspection.
Some utilities are re-examining long-held views on the economics of protecting against the weather. Pepco, the utility serving the area around Washington, has repeatedly studied the idea of burying more power lines, and the company and its regulators have always decided that the cost outweighed the benefit. But the company has had five storms in the last two and a half years for which recovery took at least five days, and after the derecho last month, the consensus has changed. Both the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, Md., have held hearings to discuss the option — though in the District alone, the cost would be $1.1 billion to $5.8 billion, depending on how many of the power lines were put underground.
Even without storms, heat waves are changing the pattern of electricity use, raising peak demand higher than ever. That implies the need for new investment in generating stations, transmission lines and local distribution lines that will be used at full capacity for only a few hundred hours a year. “We build the system for the 10 percent of the time we need it,” said Mark Gabriel, a senior vice president of Black & Veatch, an engineering firm. And that 10 percent is “getting more extreme.”
Even as the effects of weather extremes become more evident, precisely how to react is still largely an open question, said David Behar, the climate program director for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. “We’re living in an era of assessment, not yet in an area of adaptation,” he said.
The biggest problem is that people’s mindset is stuck in the old days, and I don’t just mean their expectations about ‘normal’ weather. No, the worst is that people can’t accept the reality that in the post-normal we will never have the luxury of time to assess and then adapt. Linear, problem-solving approaches will simply not work anymore.
But this is not a call for more old world leadership, characterized by moving fast, and looking for permanent ‘solutions’ to well-defined and researched ‘problems’. Instead, we need leaders demonstrating the ‘VUCA Prime’ characteristics, as Bob Johansen has styled it.
Leslie Caron makes the break between the old world and the new one very clear:
We are moving from a world of problems, which demand speed, analysis, and elimination of uncertainty to solve, to a world of dilemmas, which demand patience, sense-making, and an engagement of uncertainty.
So, in this context, there is no ‘solution’ to infrastructure stress and failure based on more violent weather. We are stuck in a next context which is fundamentally unsolvable, but we have to try to make sense of this in the context of the larger world.
For example: the financial constraints of our weakened economy mean that we may not be able to repair the interstate highway system, but we might extend and maintain the train system for people moving. Do we have the foresight to disinvest in the highway system? Can we shift from a truck-based logistics system to boats, trains, and airships long-distance hauling?
We are just as trapped in our thinking as we are in a rapidly changing global weather system, and without leaders with the mindset and skillset geared for the post-normal world, we will never find out way out.