By: Mike McMeekin & Kyle Davy
This winter’s polar vortex event in Texas and across the Midwest provides yet another example of the threats we face from extreme weather made worse by climate change. Multiple failures across interconnected infrastructure systems resulted in extensive, serious health and safety consequences for people who relied on these systems along with economic consequences that will be felt for years.
One of the great engineering challenges of the 21st Century will be adapting to the stark reality of extreme weather. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began tracking extreme weather and climate disasters in 1980. Over four decades, the United States has experienced 285 weather and climate disaster events whose damages/costs exceeded $1 billion. The cumulative total cost of these events exceeds $1.875 trillion along with over 550 deaths. In 2020 alone, there were 22 of these $1 billion-dollar plus events as illustrated on the following graphic from NOAA.
NOAA’s data appears to indicate that both the number and costs of these climate disasters are rising at a dramatic rate, potentially tipping up into an exponential trend line (see graph below and https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/overview). In Texas alone, the preliminary price tag for this year’s polar vortex event is over $120 billion, a strong indicator that the curve will continue upward in 2021. This trend is threatening to overwhelm safety margins and protections built into infrastructure systems, buildings, and natural ecosystems.
The extreme cold of the Texas polar vortex, accompanied by snow and ice, resulted in a perfect storm of systemic failures for energy and water infrastructure. Extended severe cold temperatures drove demand for electricity for heating above available supply. Cold temperatures caused equipment failures at electricity-generating facilities of all types. Frozen equipment interrupted gas supply pipelines.
At the same time, a lack of electrical grid inter-connections with adjacent power grids prevented electrical power supply being imported from outside of Texas. Rolling outages, implemented to prevent complete failure of the electrical system, shut down water treatment and pumping facilities, cutting off water supply to homes and businesses. Water lines supplying residential, commercial and institutional users (including hospitals) froze and broke, causing damage within structures — often made much worse by the lack of knowledge about steps that occupants and users could have taken to minimize problems.
The February storm, like other extreme weather, demonstrated the consequences of the failure to invest in infrastructure resilience including:
• Threats to health and safety, including the unnecessary loss of lives.
• Major impacts on quality of life.
• Multiple economic impacts.
- Loss of economic output and productivity as businesses were forced to close for multiple days.
- Unnecessary costs to rebuild damaged assets and infrastructure under emergency timelines that do not allow for the reflection and planning important to “building back better.”
- Costs to repair and rebuild homes and businesses due to water damage from broken water pipes.
- Decreases in property values along with increases in insurance costs.
- Disproportionate economic impacts on the poor, resulting in setbacks in efforts to reduce inequality.
These consequences were neither an unavoidable condition or unforeseen possibility. After a severe winter storm in Texas in 2011, recommendations were made to increase investment in energy and water infrastructure systems across the state to forestall the type of damage experienced last month. But follow-through was lacking, driven by a desire to keep energy prices low by minimizing investments in these types of infrastructure improvements.
In the aftermath of the Texas experience, the public and policy makers are questioning the wisdom of that stance. The engineering community can and should play a major role in understanding lessons learned, creating and implementing a path forward toward a resilient future for the state’s energy and water infrastructure. Beyond Texas, engineers have a responsibility to address similar extreme weather challenges across the country. The engineering community should:
• Unite around the scientific facts of our changing climate and the need to adapt infrastructure, building, and environmental design standards.
• Be a primary voice informing and educating the public about the risks that society faces from extreme weather and the positive returns of investments in resilient infrastructure.
• Exert greater influence on public policy related to extreme weather, both in developing codes, and in planning and prioritizing investments in infrastructure and environmental ecosystems.
• In both public and private sectors, the engineering community must:
- Adopt a macro-ethical approach that broadens engineers’ perspective with respect to protection of public health, safety, and welfare and stewardship of the natural environment;
- Incorporate systems thinking to better understand the connections between technology, infrastructure and larger societal, environmental, and economic systems;
- Collaborate with other experts to better understand changing weather patterns; and
- Engage the public to help understand and mitigate the impacts of infrastructure failures on communities.
We cannot bank on a downturn in the frequency and impact of extreme weather events. With the Texas storm, our society has received yet another wake-up call demanding that we invest in building resilient infrastructure systems, buildings, and environmental ecosystems. Failure to make those investments now will only shift the burden of future extreme weather events to future generations, often onto those least able to absorb those impacts.
Responding to the great challenge of extreme weather will demand the best of engineers and the engineering community. As stewards of technology and the natural environment, engineers can and should shoulder major roles and responsibilities to help society prepare for and mitigate the impacts of this rising tide of extreme weather events.