Sunday, August 5, 2012

Major Effects of the 2012 Mega Drought On Critical Infrastructure

Definitions. Infrastructure has been traditionally described as the fixed assets of a systemic network that require a high level of maintenance to support a certain level of service.

   Hard infrastructure are the systemic physical networks maintained for the high standard of living enjoyed by developed countries. These are comprised of  both fixed assets and their control systems that perform the movement of people, vehicles, energy, fluids, and even information.
   Soft infrastructure include the programs to run the control systems, some physical assets that are highly specialized, as well as the personnel to operate such systems and assests, and the financing to continue to operate and maintain the infrastructure.
   Critical infrastructure is widely described as the essential assets that necessary for the smooth funtionality of the modern socioeconomical workings of a developed nation. These include, but are not limited to:
  1. Energy assets.
      a) Electrical generation, transmission, and distribution (the "grid")
      b) Gas and oil bulk and byproducts production, transport, and distribution to include heating supplies.
    2. Water supply, to include all aspects affecting drinking water, waste water, and irrigation.
     3. Agriculture, including food production and distribution, and commodities.
     4. Public health, including hospitals, emergency medical care and transportation, and the interdisciplinary planning and operations necessary to consider multiple sector impacts on the public health.
     5. Transportation systems such as highways, roads, bridges, tunnels, fuel supply, railway networks, airports, ports, inland waterways.
  Drought. . Drought is defined as a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time, resulting in a water shortage for some activity, group, or environmental sector. Drought can result in serious shortage of water for cultivation and cattle farms, rising food prices (in the U.S.), and population migration. Drought is both a relatively normal part of the climate and an insidious natural hazard, but poorly understood. The 2012 Drought is showing signs of worsening, but of course that is no news to the areas still in severe drought since 2011. “When no rain or only a very small amount of rain falls, soils can dry out and plants can die. When rainfall is less than normal for several weeks, months, or years, the flow of streams and rivers declines, water levels in lakes and reservoirs fall, and the depth to water in wells increases. If dry weather persists and water-supply problems develop, the dry period can become a drought.” (Moreland 1993). 
 Drought is also a natural hazard that has more far reaching repercussions than most people, including those planning for hazard mitigation might suspect. 

Recent Effects of Severe Heat Wave and Drought upon Critical Infrastructure.

    a. Energy. "Texas has endured its worst one-year drought in recorded history." (Gailbraith, August 2011) 

        "And as the scorching days add up, the entire state is worrying about power failures, which have already occurred at Texas City refineries and in the Rio Grande Valley. When dust and other contaminants coat insulators on power lines and get damp, they can conduct electricity and cause failures, said Kent Saathoff, the vice president of system planning and operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state's main grid operator. 

There is also a risk that water needed to cool power plants, which comes from lakes and reservoirs, could run out next year if the drought continues, Saathoff said. If that happens, the plants will either run at a reduced level or, in drastic cases, shut down." (Auber, August 2011)

"Though Central Texas might not be having the catastrophic pavement failure reported in some other superheated parts of the country, the region has not been immune to the effects of the drought and steady triple-digit temperatures, said Lowell Choate , district maintenance engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation.
"This year is worse than usual because of the high heat and lack of moisture," Choate said." (Price 2012)

Fossil fuel energy production is highly dependent upon an adequate and continuous water supply, and power plants are a close second behind irrigration requirements for a freshwater source. 

"During the summer and fall of 2007, a serious drought affected the southeastern United States. River flows decreased, and water levels in lakes and other impoundments dropped. In a few cases, water levels were so low that power production had to be stopped or reduced... Drought {in 2012} could have a serious effect on nuclear power plants, in addition to coal plants....Transmission lines in some areas may be insufficient to handle normal loads, let alone heavy loads. Also, some transmission lines may be sufficient under normal operating conditions, but could easily become overloaded under extreme circumstances. Environmental conditions, such as excessive heat which often accompanies a drought, can also limit the electric 
capacity of transmission lines. Many areas of the United States have transmission corridors in which the lines are very close to their operating limit; severe circumstances can easily overload those lines." (DOE 2009)

"This study focused on plant shutdowns or curtailments due to low water intake levels caused by droughts. However, droughts often occur with very hot conditions, which may result in other effects not taken into account in this study. Power plants have limits on the temperature of water they return to the cooling source. Most plants cannot discharge water warmer than 90° to 110°F. If the water temperature is too high, the plant must curtail the power level so that the water delivered back to the source is below the threshold value. This condition often occurs in July and August — the months of peak load, not only in the WECC regions, but also in most of the 
United States." (DOE 2009) 

{ed note: In the summer heat wave of 2006, for example, electric power transformers failed in several areas (including St. Louis, Missouri, and Queens, New York) due to high temperatures, causing
interruptions of electric power supply.} ( (US Global Change Research Program Impacts 2011)

2. Water supply. (Auber 2011) "In West Texas, the main concern is water. A lightning strike near the Texas-New Mexico border sparked Lubbock's June wildfire, which knocked out 20 percent of the wells that provide water for the city, reducing supply for the next two weeks to 62 million gallons a day from 71 million gallons. The city was already restricting water use and has been in Stage 1 of its drought plan since 2006 (residents can only water two days a week from April through September) because its other water source, Lake Meredith, is critically low. After the fire, vegetation was cleared from the well fields to ensure that another fire would not threaten the city's water supply. 'If the fire had struck in a more crucial spot, we would not have been able to supply water to Lubbock,' said Aubrey Spear, the city's water utilities director." 

(Auber 2011) "A five-hour drive to the east, Fort Worth is one of the rare Texas cities that has not established water restrictions — yet. But in July, there were more than 200 water main breaks due to shifting soil. On a single day in early July, residents reported 20 breaks.....Austin is also seeing more breaks in water mains. The city's water department has been averaging 10 to 15 breaks more than usual each week, said Jason Hill, as spokesman for the department."

"At the end of August, Houston had 1,033 active leaks in its water system...The 2011 drought caused considerable damage to infrastructure. Much of Texas is covered in clay-rich soils that swell when wet and shrink when soil moisture evaporates. That shrinkage can cause the soil to buckle, damaging foundations, roads and water and sewer lines." (State of Texas Special Report 2011)

"Many places rely on snowmelt to fill the lakes, rivers, and streams that help keep drinking water reservoirs full and provide water to irrigate crops. For example, many parts of the western United States depend on water from the Colorado River, which is fed by melting snowpack in the Rocky Mountains. Less snowpack and earlier snowmelt will reduce the amount of water flowing into the Colorado and other rivers." (EPA 2011) 

"The most rapidly growing area of the country is the Mountain West, a region projected to face more frequent and severe wildfires and have less water available, particularly during the high-demand period of summer. Continued population growth in these arid and semi-arid regions would stress water supplies. Because of high demand for irrigating agriculture, overuse of rivers and streams is common in the arid West, particularly along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, in Southern California, and in the Central Valley of California. Rapid population and economic growth in these arid and semi-arid regions has dramatically increased vulnerability to water shortages."  (US Global Change Research Program Impacts 2011)

""Although irrigation has made it possible to grow crops on land that was once considered barren, this practice has led to a reliance on ground water and surface storage in reservoirs. Increasing demands on water have resulted in the depletion of ground water reserves in many areas, which can make the removal of additional water uneconomical if not impossible, especially during a drought. In many urban areas of the semi-arid and arid western U.S., population growth, expansion into marginal areas, and the subsequent development is overtaxing water supplies and heightening vulnerability to drought." (NOAA North American Drought: A Paleo Perspective 2012)

3. Agriculture. Drought is hindering agricultural production across the Midwest and has driven up corn and soy prices. Ethanol production is down, but has already taken 40% of the corn crop. Only about a quarter of national corn and soy crops are reported to be in good condition.

Fires have burned in parts of the drought afflicted Southwest, already aproximately 2 million acres. In Missouri, as in other sections of the country, hay production has fallen precipitating livestock sales as producers are unable to feed them. 

Scenarios for higher heat-trapping gas emissions producing climate changes affecting national ability to produce food, feed, and livestock products have already come to be seen this year. "Increased heat, disease, and weather extremes are likely to reduce livestock productivity...{and} swine, beef, and milk production are all projected to decline in a warmer world". The foraging availability has already been seen to decline because of the effect of increasing carbon dioxide on plant nitrogen and protein content, whereas weeds and pests benefit. "Fruits, vegetables, and grains can suffer even under well-watered conditions if temperatures exceed the maximum level for pollen viability in a particular plant; if temperatures exceed the threshold for that plant, it won't produce seed....and....reproduce."  (US Global Change Research Program Impacts 2011)

"Analysis of crop responses suggests that even moderate increases in temperature will decrease yields of corn, wheat, sorghum, bean, rice, cotton, and peanut crops."   (US Global Change Research Program Impacts 2011)

4. Public Health. Heat waves and poor air quality already threaten the lives of thousands of people each year. Experience and research have shown that these events are interrelated as the atmospheric conditions that produce heat waves are often accompanied by stagnant air and poor air quality. The recent simultaneous occurrence of heat waves, drought, and stagnant air is negatively affecting the quality of life, especially in cities. 

"Heat waves are uncomfortable for everyone, but for infants and young children, the elderly, and people who are already sick, they can be especially dangerous. Extreme heat can cause illnesses such as heat cramps, heat stroke, and even death. A 2003 heat wave in Europe caused about 50,000 deaths, and a 1995 heat wave in Chicago caused more than 600 deaths. In fact, heat waves cause more deaths in the United States every year than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined." (EPA 2011)

In most cities, the poor often live in the most marginal of these environments, in areas that are susceptible to extreme events, and their ability to adapt is limited by their lack of financial resources. Heat waves are often the “overlooked” natural disaster, frequently not recognized by the media or government as a public health risk and omitted from the disaster literature. More heat-related deaths occur in cities than in rural areas because stored heat dissipates slower in urban areas. This is due to the density of brick and stone buildings, paved streets, and tar roofs that store heat and radiate it like a slowly burning furnace to create a “heat island.” 

Cities are also likely to be affected by climate change in unforeseen ways, necessitating diversion of city funds for emergency responses to extreme weather. There is the potential for increased summer electricity blackouts owing to greater demand for air conditioning. For example, there were widespread power outages in Chicago during the 1995 heat wave and in some parts of New York City during the 1999 heat wave. In southern California’s cities, additional summer electricity demand will intensify conflicts between hydropower and flood-control objectives.

Lower-income individuals may not have air conditioning or may hesitate to turn it on due to cost. Often they live in high-crime areas and may be afraid to open the windows, creating an indoor environment equivalent to a greenhouse with little air circulation and increasing temperatures. Additionally, special populations such as the elderly and the mentally ill, who are more likely to be alone because of difficulty in gaining and maintaining social support, may also have difficulty cooling down or avoiding severe sunburns due to their medications. 

Part of the traditional purpose of infrastructure is protect human health, and so have an inherently important relationship. But the implications of the interrelation of the sectors such as transportation, utilities, and communications are not being recognized, or acted upon in a timely fashion by the legislative bodies concerned. 

5. Transportation. 

"The increase in extreme heat will limit some transportation operations and cause pavement and track damage. Increased susceptibility to wildfires during droughts  threatens roads and other transportation infrastructure directly, or cause road closures due to fire threat or reduced visibility such as has occurred in Florida and California in recent years. There is also increased susceptibility to mudslides in areas deforested by wildfires. Airports could suffer from decreased visibility due to wildfires. River transport is seriously affected by drought, with reductions in the routes available, shipping season, and cargo carrying capacity." (US Global Change Research Program Impacts 2011)

"Longer periods of extreme heat in summer {are} damaging roads in several ways, including  subsidence of roadbeds, and softening of asphalt that leads to rutting from heavy traffic. Sustained air temperature over 90°F is a significant threshold for such problems . Extreme heat can cause deformities in rail tracks, at minimum resulting in speed restrictions and, at worst, causing derailments. Air temperatures above 100°F can lead to equipment failure. Extreme heat also causes thermal expansion of bridge joints, adversely affecting bridge operations and increasing maintenance costs. Vehicle overheating and tire deterioration are additional concerns. Higher temperatures will also increase refrigeration needs for goods during transport, particularly in the South, raising transportation costs." (US Global Change Research Program Impacts 2011)

"If low water levels become more common because of drier conditions due to climate change, this could create problems for river traffic, reminiscent of the stranding of more than 4,000 barges on the Mississippi River during the drought in 1988. Freight movements in the region could be seriously impaired, and extensive dredging could be required to keep shipping channels open."(US Global Change Research Program Impacts 2011)

"Rising temperatures will affect airport ground facilities, runways in particular, in much the same way they affect roads. More heat extremes will create added operational difficulties, for example, causing greater energy consumption by planes on the ground. Extreme heat also affects aircraft lift; because hotter air is less dense, it reduces the lift produced by the wing and the thrust produced by the engine – problems exacerbated at high altitudes and high temperatures. As a result, planes need to take off faster, and if runways are not sufficiently long for aircraft to build up enough speed to generate lift, aircraft weight must be reduced. Thus, increases in extreme heat will result in payload restrictions, could cause flight cancellations and service disruptions at affected airports, and could require some airports to lengthen runways. Recent hot summers have seen flights cancelled due to heat, especially in high altitude locations. Economic losses are expected at affected airports. A recent illustrative analysis projects a 17 percent reduction in freight carrying capacity for a single Boeing 747 at the Denver airport by 2030 and a 9 percent reduction at the Phoenix airport due to increased temperature and water vapor."  (US Global Change Research Program Impacts 2011)

In Alaska, the retreat of permafrost will produce subsidence, and a thawing cycle that threatens roads, railways, and the supports for the elevated Trans-Alaska pipeline. Increased glacier melt will accelerate scouring of bridge abutments, which is already the leading cause of bridge failure nationwide. Ice routes will increase payload restrictions during warmer winters. Alaskan airports will either be relocated or forced to make extensive repairs due to the permafrost difficulties noted above. These environmental changes have already been noted in Alaska which is more sensitive to permafrost engineering challenges.  

The Saint Lawrence waterway and the Great Lakes are experiencing lower water levels that are going to rack up higher shipping costs due to lower cargo tonnage capacity, and shifts to land transport systems that produce up to three times the polluting emissions than that of  water transport. The Mississippi river will need to conduct more expensive dredging operations as in past severe droughts to facilitate river traffic. 

"Get used to fires -- bigger, hotter, longer fires. As William DeBuys recently wrote for TomDispatch, 'A lethal combination of drought, insect plagues, windstorms, and legions of dead, dying, or stressed-out trees constitute what some pundits are calling wildfire's 'perfect storm.' But DeBuys cautions that it's not really a 'storm' in the sense that it's not 'sudden, violent, and temporary.' No, the conditions that are feeding fire seasons are really what many scientists think will be the 'new normal." (Lohan 2012) 

"If you surf the blogosphere looking for fire information, pretty quickly you’ll notice a dust devil of “facts” blowing back and forth: big fires are four times more common than they used to be; the biggest fires are six-and-a-half times larger than the monster fires of yesteryear; and owing to a warmer climate, fires are erupting earlier in the spring and subsiding later in the fall. Nowadays, the fire season is two and a half months longer than it was 30 years ago." (deBuys 2012)

Severe prolonged drought together with successive heat waves is impacting society's necessities and standard of living: energy, housing, transportation, food, and health. The Dust Bowl drought and the Mini-Dust Bowl drought of the 1950s are only indicative of the most severe droughts of the 20th century, and there is paleoclimatic data suggesting that other worse droughts occurred in our nation’s climatic history. And there is no trending to suggest that drought may be expected to increase in frequency but increased temps will produce more drying during the summers which will lead to more intense droughts as we have seen recently, especially in the Southwest. 

A clear parallel may be drawn that the current severe drought has much in common with the 1930s “Dust Bowl” drought as does the recent recession did with the Great Depression, and the common denominator being the present regressive congressional and election year political situation. And across the U.S., climate predictions show an ever increasing decrease in summer precip as global temps increase. Therefore, the 2012 U.S. drought has implications for weakening the current recovery while contributing to famine in the developing world. 

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