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With Rising Temperatures, Infrastructure Falters


Exactly a year ago this week, a video on YouTube went viral. It was called "Heat Buckles Highway, SUV Goes Airborne." A road in Wisconsin buckled so badly from the heat that it sent cars flying. Well, this year, the buckling continues. But if you're in certain parts of the country, you don't need me to tell you that. It's hot, and I'm not going to use that but-it's-a-dry-heat line, either.

The very infrastructure of our roads is having problems with the heat, and it's not just softening the tar and the asphalt. There are less obvious effects, such as droopy power lines, buckling highways, as I mentioned, and railroad tracks even, and less-efficient airplane takeoffs. These are all among the problems that may spoil your day. Joining me now to talk about the heat and how cities are dampening the infrastructures for warmer temperatures is Vicki Arroyo. She's executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, part of the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

VICKI ARROYO: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You didn't happen to see that video, the SUV going airborne, did you?

ARROYO: No, I think I missed that one but there was a lot going on. I mean, I certainly heard about the plane stuck in the tarmac at National Airport last summer around the same time.

FLATOW: I just saw today as I researching this on the Internet, highways out West are buckling now from the heat that's going on out there.

ARROYO: That's true. And out West they did last year. Of course, you know, heat is the number one expected impact from climate change that you'd expect and it affects infrastructure as well as people.

FLATOW: And here in the East where we heavily use railroads and commuter railroads, they're actually find trouble from the heat too.

ARROYO: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, rails, you know, buckle or kink as they warm. And you see some slow tracking of trains. So, your metro or your subway commute might be slower in an era of climate change. And people are trying to get a handle on what this means for how tracks are constructed. For example, the elevated rail lines in Chicago are vulnerable. They don't have the concrete base. So, obviously, if something goes wrong with that elevated track you'd be in trouble.

FLATOW: You know, I was looking at the Virginia Railway Express Company, which supplies commuter trains right there to your area from Northern Virginia to downtown D.C. And on their website, they say that an 1,800-foot length of rail will expand almost one foot with an 80-degree change in temperature. Wow. That's crazy.

ARROYO: Yeah. And, you know, the thing to keep in mind is that this infrastructure is built for the past conditions in our local area. So, it's not to say that we can't change our infrastructure with climate change in mind, whether it be climate change impacts along the coast, like storm surge or sea level rise, but it's obviously going to take time and it's going to take money.

FLATOW: Our number is - there you go; two magic words - 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you'd like to talk about the infrastructure. Maybe something's going on in your neighborhood that is becoming the new normal now as the temperatures go for 100 degrees out West and as our climate is changing. You can also tweet us @SciFri - at S-C-I-F-R-I - and send us a note on our website at sciencefriday.com. You know, of course, we always hear that the electrical utilities have their hands full during the hot days but I assume they have plans, right, for increased demand on those days.

ARROYO: Well, they have plans for increased demand but one of the local heads of a utility said that we're having a one-in-100-year storm every year now it seems. Of course, we had the derecho last summer, we had Superstorm Sandy just north of us here in the D.C. area, actually hitting New York and Connecticut and New Jersey. And parent companies like Entergy in my home state of Louisiana are taking on some changes, whether it be operational changes like trimming trees around power lines or using shorter, stubbier poles, if you will, to hold the saggy power lines that you talked about - make them stronger for wind. They're even actually taking the unusual step of trying to restore some of the wetlands that can serve as a buffer to storm surge. So, people are really dealing with it. In Washington, D.C., where the climate center is, D.C. government is spending a billion dollars to bury the power lines.

FLATOW: Wow. That's a great solution. Hang around with us.


FLATOW: We're going to come back and talk some more about the infrastructure, what the new normal is with heat and different climates. So, stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about how increasing temperatures affect infrastructure from transportation to electrical generation. My guest is Vicki Arroyo. She's the executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center. If you'd like to talk about how the heat is affecting your town, we'd like to hear from you. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Maybe you have some unique problems in your town that is forcing folks to do something different. You can also tweet us @SciFri S-C-I-F-R-I. Vicki, you were talking about, before the break, about how people are actually going to be burying power lines. That's refreshing.

ARROYO: That's right. In Washington, D.C., yeah. I mean, and, of course, there are some places that you can't necessarily do that because the water table is too high and then you've got the risk of flooding. If you're along the coast - and half of our population is in coastal counties - so, it's not a solution for every place. But certain governments, like D.C., are taking steps to do that now.

FLATOW: You know, we were thinking about - 'cause we had Hurricane Sandy here, we had people who had loss of power for many days. A lot of people are thinking about installing backup generators.

ARROYO: Well, that's right, yeah. And, of course, the irony is that backup generators, they're powered by diesel, a fossil fuel. They're really ultimately contributing to the climate change that we're experiencing. And, as you saw in New York, it's not necessarily a panacea, depending on where the generators are located. So, recently, Mayor Bloomberg and others in New York actually put out a report recommending some changes to the New York building code, including just basic things like making sure that windows open so that when there's a power outage, people can still find the building that they live in habitable. Water access: if the water pumps are not working to get the water to the higher floors, but water access in common access down lower in the building. And also making sure that places like hospitals elevate their backup power generators, 'cause otherwise they don't really do you any good.

FLATOW: Yeah. We were in a southern city that's, you know, subject to hurricane flooding - I think it was Savannah. I was walking through Savannah and I walked by a firehouse and they had their generator two stories above the floor.

ARROYO: Um-hum. Makes a lot of sense.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Jim in St. George, Utah. Hi, Jim.

JIM: Hi. Thank you. Love your show.

FLATOW: Is it hot enough for you?

JIM: Oh, absolutely. In St. George and the surrounding area - I'm about an hour and a half of Las Vegas - over the years, you know, initially about 100 years ago, temperatures ranged in the low 100s in the summertime. Well, as of lately with the types of materials that we use in buildings and stuff like that, the temperature is getting a lot hotter. You know, we're working in 121 degrees in Las Vegas sometimes, and in St. George it's usually, you know, 115, 116 degrees. The problems, you know, arise when we use these materials that are extremely reflective, that hold the heat in. And it's never allowed to be released and so throughout the day it just continues to get hotter and hotter, you know. We have problems with asphalt where cars in the parking lots get stuck because the asphalt melts or you step in it and it makes a mess of your shoes. You know, I think we really need to concentrate, especially in these cities, trying to figure out materials that are, you know, that's...

FLATOW: He's gone. I think he just melted. Not.

ARROYO: I hope not.

FLATOW: Well, he's right about - don't we have these urban heat islands, right, that...

ARROYO: Well, yeah, we absolutely do. And, of course, climate change and global warming (unintelligible) just make that worse. And so there are things that are along the lines of what he was talking about. You can try to have cooler, more reflect roof, you can paint them white, for example. That will both decrease the temperature for the occupants in the building so that they can stay longer during a heat wave. But also bring the temperature of the surrounding area down and save energy at the same time. Same thing with vegetative greenery. The D.C. government is actually helping to defray the cost of new green roofs with home and building owners by sharing the cost of installing those green roofs, and they're doing that through a fee on plastic bags. The reason being that those green roofs also capture some of the rainwater so that it's not, you know, washing off in storm water runoff, which as it rains it pours is another impact of climate change that we're trying to avoid the worst consequences (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Let's go to Sarah in eastern Long Island. Hi, Sarah. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

SARAH: Hello. We have a lot of problems down here as we've been affected by very higher tides. And our local officials are really not doing anything. They're allowing oceanfront homeowners to put up enormous bulkheads and steel plates to keep back the ocean, which is not going to work, in violation of the New York State D.C. regulations. And our beaches are washing away in front of them and people can't pass. All of the sudden, the beaches are going to be just unusable, and this is a summer resort and the engine of our economy is our beaches. Our local utilities are not carrying cables. And it's just we have a lot of floodwaters coming off of fields, which runoff into our ponds and clouding them up and causing tremendous algae blooms. It's as if they're deer in the headlights. They don't know what to do.

FLATOW: Are you out there in the Hamptons?

SARAH: Yes, we are.

FLATOW: Any suggestions, Vicki?

ARROYO: Well, this is something we actually work on quite a bit at the Climate Center. And one of the things that we're finding is that when communities are trying to do novel things, like Maryland, for example, where they're trying not to go that route of putting up seawalls everywhere, because there actually does exacerbate the problem, plus it's eliminating the places where fish hatch and natural features and wetlands. But it's a longer process. You know, we were really set up for another era and the Army Corps and the state permitting often allowed the seawalls to go up pretty easily through the permitting process, whereas an exception to that kind of hard armoring actually takes sometimes years. So, you can see why people are rushing to try to defend their property in ways that really might be counterproductive and certainly not great for ecosystem health but also for storm surge in the long term. So, one of the things that we work on is trying to change those policies with the future in mind because it is going to look different from what we've seen in the past.

FLATOW: Good luck to you, Sarah.

SARAH: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. So, how do you get cities to prepare?

ARROYO: Well, you know, they're starting to really do this more and more on their own. If you heard President Obama speak at Georgetown last week on climate change, he talked about the importance of working with state and local communities because they're already on the front lines. So, some of them have been up to this for some time now. In Chicago, because of its heat wave in 1995 that killed so many people, on New York City post-Superstorm Sandy, a lot of them have already to take measures like the changes in building codes that I mentioned, cooler roofs, storm water capture to reduce some of the surface flooding. Even my hometown of New Orleans is trying to use some of the vacant lots that are still there post-Katrina to sort of contour them so that the water stays in place. Not from a dramatic incident like Katrina, which, obviously, caused, you know, severe flooding but from the more routine storms that actually cause a lot of flooding anyway. I mean, Hurricane Isaac last year that, for most people, is an afterthought, was a billion-dollar storm in that part of the world. And, you know, part of it was from just the rain, I mean, you know, 18 or 20 inches of rain in some spots. So, if we can find ways to live with the water to have more green space to capture the water, that's better for everybody.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get one more call in from Brian(ph) in Ventura, California. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: How you doing?

FLATOW: Hey, there.

BRIAN: Yeah, hey. I just wanted to mention I'm an energy engineer, I work for the Navy. And one of the things we're looking at is doing more distributed-type power using natural gas, maybe through fuel cells. I mean, you can also build renewables into that mix. It kind of gets away from, you know, large power plants and inefficient high-voltage transmission lines.

FLATOW: Interesting. Engineers...

BRIAN: (unintelligible) you guys' thoughts.

FLATOW: ...yeah, more local power stations.

ARROYO: Yeah, I'm glad you brought that up because it brings to mind two things. One is that Smart Grid, which we often think about for distributed generation and renewable power to come online, can also be an important solution when it comes to some of these extreme weather events because you can actually cut off the power of the system that's down and you can reroute power, especially to the places like hospitals and schools that you need to get them up right away, you need to get the energy up right away. And we also saw after Superstorm Sandy that some of the clean fuel vehicles - the natural-gas trucks in Long Island, for example - were able to remove debris when everybody recalls there were those long lines for weeks at a time for regular gasoline and diesel. So, alternative energy can actually be part of the solution to a more resilient economy as well.

FLATOW: But it takes a lot of planning, right? You have to think about it and plan for it.

ARROYO: It does, absolutely.

FLATOW: Get everybody together.

ARROYO: Everybody together...

FLATOW: It's like herding cats sometimes though.

ARROYO: Well, and at every level of government and in your own home. I mean, how many of us have provisions if we have an extreme storm event that puts out power out for a few days to be able to, you know, have the food and the water that we need, to be able to have a backup if, you know, we're only on cell phones and those go down. How do we communicate with people? I mean, people really do need to make plans for this at every level of government in our society.

FLATOW: Well, we'll stay in touch, Vicki, OK?

ARROYO: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you. Vicki Arroyo. She's executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center. And we're going to have a lot of climate this summer, so I'm sure we'll be retouching with her. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.