Soaring temperatures in the United States are closing schools, damaging infrastructure, and affecting its services. The Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect in cities is also worsening and disproportionately affecting low-income and colored communities.
As more people move to the cities, the intense heat will create hot spots or unlivable areas. Cities will have to adapt to the heat, transforming urban design if they will have to cope with the rising temperatures.
According to the Salon article “Too hot to handle: Crumbling US infrastructure melts under excessive heat,” soaring temperatures in the Northeast part of the US have caused public schools in Philadelphia to suspend their classes, and dozens of schools in Baltimore have closed down. More than 35 million people also were put under a heat advisory.
The Salon article mentions further:
- Eighteen Baltimore schools do not have air conditioning systems, and as many as 12 don’t have air conditioning that doesn’t work. The city also endured 25 days of 90°F (32°C) weather two years ago two years ago.
- As these heat spells get more frequent, they can lead to more school closures and disrupt children’s education, causing routine headaches to parents, which could take a toll on society.
- The city also suffers from the urban heat island (UHI) effect. The phenomenon occurs when the city endures higher temperatures than its surrounding rural areas.
- This heat is caused by infrastructures primarily made of metal and concrete, which absorb the sun’s heat and release it into the surrounding environment. Aside from pavements, structures, and buildings that emit heat, people’s machinery and equipment also give off heat.
- Cities prone to the UHI are also bereft of trees and plants – which could provide shade and moisture through its evaporation and offsetting the heat.
- The article mentions the IPCC report released in April 2022, revealing a litany of broken climate pledges by governments and countries to limit temperature increase below 2°C, which without deep and rapid cuts to GHG emissions, it is very likely that we will surpass this limit by the middle of this century.
The Guardian article “Climate limit of 1.5C close to being broken, scientists warn” reports that the UK Met Office found a 50% chance that we will exceed the 1.5°C warming within five years. Their scientist also predicts a 93% chance that by 2026, one year will be the hottest ever recorded, surpassing 2016, which was the hottest year.
This year the sweltering heat is damaging infrastructure in Portland temperatures exceeding 90°F (32°C) are causing light rail cables to sag and could halt mass transit system operation.
According to the Salon article, in Spokane, Washington, the heat led to soaring demands for energy, forcing a utility provider to cut the power supply. And last year, the heat dome across the Pacific Northwest caused roads to buckle and power lines to melt.
The article also identifies how high temperatures can impact people’s health, including depriving them of quality sleep, cognitive impairment, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Heat may also increase the “propensity for violence,” a finding shared by the Washington Post article “Two new studies warn that a hotter world will be a more violent one“.
Cities will be most vulnerable as 60% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by the end of this decade. Increasing temperatures will make some areas unlivable, and moving out or migrating will be the only solution.
How cities can adapt to the heat
The Salon article “Too hot to handle: Crumbling US infrastructure melts under excessive heat” presents some suggestions on how cities can adapt to heat, to wit:
- Cities can decrease temperatures by creating and providing green space to offset the heat. The article notes that green spaces may look like an expensive investment for cities if policymakers do not consider the loss of productivity and health effects due to heat exposure.
- Dr. Eric Chu, a leading the urban planning section of the Fifth National Climate Assessment for the US Global Change Research Program, emphasized the need for “passive ventilation,” where the removal of hot air is facilitated naturally, without machinery like air conditioning.
- According to Chu, “The big thing with existing buildings is retrofits to incorporate more heat, resilient materials, but also, obviously, you want carbon-zero construction materials from an energy efficiency standpoint. The co-benefit of retrofitting buildings is also making buildings more heat resistant with cool reflective paints, cool roofs, green roofs, vegetated walls, and solar panels.”
- Considering the politics of climate change, Chu thinks that lawmakers will only be forced to initiate the structural reforms needed “When people are no longer able to work as many days outside, those are sort of the things that will prompt local governments to act.”
The need to adapt infrastructure to the changing climate
Buildings protect us from the elements, especially from extreme weather events. But because most of the infrastructure we use today was built many years ago, they are not designed to withstand today’s harsh climate.
Additionally, infrastructure is interconnected, and a disruption in one system will affect another. Therefore, the threats posed by climate change can impact our long-term sustainability and interaction as a society.
Rising temperatures can damage infrastructure – building materials expand, causing the structure to deform and become unstable. A hotter planet will increase the demand for water and energy, and migration from cities will also impact the need and management of infrastructure.
Adapting to climate change requires building climate-resilient infrastructure.
According to Climate Science’s “Infrastructure: Adapting our Infrastructure to Survive Climate Change” the majority of current infrastructure maintenance is caused by climatic variability and costs low- and middle-income countries USD 391-647 billion annually to maintain infrastructure. In Europe, maintenance costs could reach ten times higher by 2100 because of climate change.
The Climate Science article reveals some options on how we can achieve a climate-resilient society, including building from scratch and designing standards that account for climate prediction; building redundant infrastructure for key infrastructure links like bridges and roads; retrofitting existing infrastructure to handle extreme events; making the most and applying available scientific expertise to identify high-risk areas and avoid developments in them while finding the safest locations to build; investing in both green and grey infrastructure, and involving local communities and applying local knowledge in climate adaptation.
The article notes that although investing in resilience will require upfront costs, climate-resilient buildings could be up to 4 times cheaper over their lifetime because they will last longer and cost less to maintain.
Planning and incorporating resilience is an essential component of infrastructure management and planning.