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Studies: Climate Change Threatens U.S. Roadways

Scientists on Tuesday issued a warning of almost Biblical proportions to the nation's transportation planners.

According to the National Research Council, much of the transportation system — including 60,000 miles of highways, major airports, railroads, low-lying tunnels and ports — will be increasingly vulnerable to flooding and sea-level rise.

Also, throughout the country, more hot days are likely to buckle asphalt, stress bridge joints and deform railroad tracks. Heat also makes it harder for planes to take off.


Is there any place where climate will make transport easier? Maybe in the Arctic, where ice will yield to open water. But on land, it will be another story because the permafrost — the solid foundation builders counted on — is melting, says Gerry Schwartz, who headed the panel that issued the report.

"There's certainly the potential for severe damage to highways, pipelines [and] airports in the Arctic," Schwartz says.

The study calls for changes at every level of government. Right now, climate scientists and transportation professionals don't even talk to each other, says Louisa Paiwonsky, who co-authored the report.

"We take a look at traffic forecasts and land-use changes and population. I don't think any state has formally incorporated climate change into its thinking," Paiwonsky says. "That needs to change."

Revamping the transportation system could cost hundreds of billions of dollars. But the National Research Council study says not doing it could end up costing much more.


The study says climate scientists can increasingly zero in on what will happen locally.

The federal government has just completed its first major regional study of climate and transportation. It picked 48 counties along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Alabama. Virginia Burkett, who co-authored the report, says much of this region is sinking, so sea level will rise faster along the Gulf than elsewhere.

"If sea level rises 4 feet, 24 percent of the interstate highways would be inundated," Burkett says, as will 28 percent of the arterial roads, 72 percent of the ports and 9 percent of the rail lines.

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