Insurance and Climate Change column

Climate Change Exposes U.S. Infrastructure to Natural Hazards, Rand Corp. Says

By | July 14, 2016

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part column. A follow up column will focus on how catastrophe modelers are being asked to create products that take into account potential climate change impacts.

A report out this week from think tank Rand Corp. shows climate change has the potential to severely impact U.S. infrastructure, and it doesn’t pull any punches.

“Even the most optimistic projections of changes to sea level rise, precipitation, and extreme temperatures suggest that more infrastructure assets — in more places throughout the country — will be exposed to more natural hazards of high intensity,” the report states.

The report, “Current and Future Exposure of Infrastructure in the United States to Natural Hazards,” also finds that natural hazard exposure that may be caused by climate change is concentrated in regions like the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Mississippi River valley.

Authors of the reoprt examined best and worst case scenarios using natural hazard data available from the National Climate Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The report recommends that infrastructure and community resilience efforts incorporate potential impacts from climate change and potential increases in exposure to natural hazards.

Henry Willis, Rand’s director of homeland security and defense center, an author of the report, said it highlights the importance of planning for the effects of climate change.

“One takeaway is that sometimes people think of climate change that’s a few decades out, and that’s true, but when we talk about infrastructure planning, it’s relevant today,” Willis said. “The exposure of infrastructure to natural disasters could change in the future for large portions of the country because of climate change.”

Rand was commissioned to produce the report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Infrastructure Protection, which asked the Santa Monica, Calif.-based group to analyze infrastructure exposure to natural hazards in the continental U.S. and analyze how climate change may impact future exposure.

Willis offered a few other takeaways from the report.

NATURAL HAZARDS

Many regions across the U.S. have infrastructure exposed to more than one natural hazard, but an analysis by Rand Corp. shows that not all regions were created equal.

The analysis shows there are clusters of counties where infrastructure faces numerous hazards.

Some of these large clusters can be found in the following regions:

      • The Pacific Northwest
      • The San Francisco Bay
      • Southern California
      • The Mississippi River valley
      • East Texas
      • Chicago and its vicinities
      • New York and its vicinities
      • Charleston, S.C.
      • South Florida

“Oftentimes people think of disasters as largely a coastal phenomenon,” however the authors found potential impacts from riverine flooding, and wind and ice storms, among other perils, faced by people living far from the coast, he said.

Some areas are more exposed than others, facing the risk of two, three or four major disasters, he added. These areas include California, the Pacific Northwest, the upper Mississippi River, the New Madrid fault zone, regions in Oklahoma and the mid-Atlantic coast.

The report lists several perils that may be exacerbated by climate change, including tornadoes, hurricanes and storm surge. But the one with possibly the biggest potential impact is drought, Willis said.

According to the report, fewer than 15,000 miles of high- and ultra-high-voltage transmission lines out of more than 200,000 miles nationwide were exposed to increased wildfire risk in 2015.

Even under moderate global warming scenarios the amount of transmission line exposed to increased wildfire risk is projected to rise by 35 percent by 2040. Exposure would increase 142 percent by 2100 under worst-case scenarios, the report shows.

It’s no surprise drought is a concern for California and the Southwest. But the authors of the report looked further out using some of the more extreme climate model predictions.

“There are areas throughout the Midwest and Southeast that would have drought exposure like we’re seeing in the drier areas now potentially,” Willis said.

According to the report, population growth and shifts, particularly in the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts, are also expected to increase the exposure of infrastructure to natural hazards.

Like many reports on climate change, this one acknowledges there’s not enough data to predict with any degree of certainty how bad things could get.

In fact, the report calls attention to the need for more granular information to be gathered about “specific natural hazard exposure and the specific infrastructure communities will need to respond effectively to climate change induced natural hazard exposure changes.”

The “more study is needed” potboiler is a bit stale, Willis acknowledged.

“That sometimes is a throwaway line, ‘More study is needed,’ but in this case its true,” he said.

The exposures presented in the report are for the most part “lower bound on current and future exposures due to limits in infrastructure data, natural hazard data, and understanding of the effects of climate change,” the report states.

It lists the most significant data gaps:

Incomplete baseline data for several hazards and areas, in particular for riverine flooding and areas where coastal flood maps are not available, which include the state of Louisiana and parts of Florida; lack of probabilistic exposure data for several hazards, especially ice storms, drought, and wildfires; uncertainty about the effects of climate change on many hazards, especially riverine flooding and hurricane winds; inadequate detail for infrastructure data to support risk analysis; lack of complete data for Alaska, Hawaii and U.S. territories; uncertainty about where and how future infrastructure development will occur.

Willis emphasized that the data used was conservative.

“We looked at what we know now about exposures,” he said. “This is an underestimate of what exposures will be in the future because science doesn’t know about what these effects will be.”

He added, “But even as an underestimate, we see potential changes in exposure.”

Past columns:

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