Stealth release of major federal study of Gulf Coast climate change transportation impacts

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On March 12 the U.S. government released a major assessment report on the likely impacts of global climate disruption on a wide range of transportation systems and infrastructure in the U.S. Gulf Coast region. The report was released in a way that was clearly intended to minimize public attention to it, and our media sources say the Department of Transportation is blocking journalists from talking with the lead author at the agency about the findings in the report. Why? Read on….

On March 12 the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) released the assessment report Impacts of Climate Change and Variability on Transportation Systems and Infrastructure: Gulf Coast Study, Phase 1. This report, 400+ pages long, is a major study of the implications of climate change for Gulf Coast transportation—including roads and highways, transit services, oil and gas pipelines, freight handling ports, transcontinental railroad networks, waterway systems, and airports. Transportation systems and infrastructure are likely to be adversely impacted by climate change, including warmer temperatures and heat waves, changes in precipitation patterns (extreme precipitation events, flooding), sea level rise, increased storm intensity, and damage associated with storm surge. The study talks about how climate change considerations need to be incorporated in transportation planning and investment decisions.

A link to the full report, which was posted on the CCSP Web site at about noon yesterday.

Three hours later DOT issued a pro forma, uninformative, and misleading press release on a different Web site, 3 links away from the report itself. There appears to be no other rollout activity in connection with this major climate change risk assessment-preparedness study. The press release lists only one contact, a press official who is a former Republican congressional staffer. It does not list as contacts any of the lead authors of the report—the individuals with the real expertise to discuss its contents.

The press release leads with: “The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has released a study on the potential impacts of climate changes and land subsidence, the natural sinking of an area’s land mass, on transportation infrastructure in the U.S. Gulf Coast region.” This is misleading and entirely inadequate. The report is not about land subsidence, it is fundamentally about the adverse consequences of climate disruption. Of the climate change impacts in the study, the DOT release specifically mentions only rising relative sea levels and fails to mention other impacts, most notably the impacts of stronger hurricanes. As the report authors say in Chapter 6: 

Climate change appears to worsen the region’s vulnerability to hurricanes, as warming seas give rise to more energetic storms. The literature indicates that the intensity of major storms may increase 5 to 20 percent. This indicates that Category 3 storms and higher may return more frequently to the central Gulf Coast and thus cause more disruptions of transportation services.  The impacts of such storms need to be examined in greater detail; storms may cause even greater damage under future conditions not considered here. If the barrier islands and shorelines continue to be lost at historical rates and as relative sea level rises, the destructive potential of tropical storms is likely to increase.

In addition to omitting such key findings, the press release fails to reflect the immediate implications for the Gulf region.  In the press release, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters says that “This study provides transportation planners in the Gulf Coast region with valuable information that will assist them as they make decisions for the future.”  Contrast that with this statement in Chapter 6, “What are the Key Conclusions of this Study”:

While further study is needed to examine in more detail the impacts on specific transportation facilities, such as individual airports or rail terminals, this preliminary assessment finds that the potential impacts on infrastructure are so important that transportation decision makers should begin immediately to assess them in the development of transportation investment strategies.

Report co-lead author Michael Savonis at the DOT Federal Highway Administration is clearly the individual who should be briefing and responding to press inquiries about this report, its findings and implications. However, we are hearing from our sources in the media that they are being explicitly told by DOT political gatekeepers that they may not have access to Savonis. Why not?

What possible justification can there be for this stealth release of the report? It’s as if they don’t regard the report as significant—or, as we expect is much more likely, that they see the findings as having significant implications for public understanding and decisionmaking, and for THAT REASON aren’t calling attention to it.

We believe a cornerstone of freedom of public access to federal scientific and technical expertise and freedom of communication for federal scientists and technical experts requires direct communication, unimpeded by politically-driven gatekeepers with an apparent interest in limiting communication and playing down the significance of climate research and assessment findings. This administration in particular has a terrible record on manipulating climate change communication and attempting to muzzle federal experts—and even now they appear to be continuing the practice. 
 
As best we can tell at this point, National Public Radio is the only media outlet to run a news item focusing specifically on the publication of this report. A transcript from March 13 NPR news:

The U.S. Department of Transportation has unveiled it’s first major federal study of how climate change will affect transportation. As NPR’s Kathleen Schalch reports, it focuses on 48 counties along the Gulf Coast, from Galveston, Texas to Mobile, Alabama.

The Gulf Coast is especially vulnerable to sea level rise because some parts of it are sinking. Co-Author Virginia Burkett of the U.S. Geological Survey says the the water could rise four feet—and that’s conservative:

“The real wild card here is ice.”

The study didn’t factor in the rapidly melting Greenland Ice sheet. But even a four foot sea level rise would seriously disrupt transportation. Within half a century, a quarter of major roads and three quarters of the port facilities could be permanently under water. Burkett says more intense storms pose another threat:

“A lot of these evacuation routes are not perpendicular to the coast. And if one part goes under water then the people can’t get out.”

Burkett says the Gulf’s roads, ports and oil pipelines are also vital to the economy.

Note that NPR was able to interview one of the lead authors of the report, who brings valuable expertise on climate and ecosystem issues, but there is nothing from the lead author at DOT who has the key expertise on transportation systems, infrastructure, and planning—the core issues of the report.

Other reporters, as well as congressional offices, should follow up on this story—both on the content of the report, which is a good example of what the nation needs from the federal government in the way of climate change impacts intelligence, risk assessment, and preparedness, and on the way DOT (and behind them the White House, surely), is handling its release.

The release of this report follows by one day the release of a National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council report, Potential Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Transportation, that deals with comparable issues (without the in-depth Gulf Coast focus). The Academy report (which was partially funded by DOT) draws strong conclusions, i.e., that while the impacts of climate change will vary by region, it is certain they will be widespread and costly in human and economic terms, and will require significant changes in the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of transportation systems.

The DOT/CCSP report has been essentially completed since December 21, the date on a final review draft that appears to be nearly identical to what was finally issued yesterday. DOT appears to have been sitting on it for nearly three months. (The report has run a years-long and complex gauntlet from inception to publication.)  Note that they held it until the day AFTER the release of the Academy report, which got some media coverage, then didn’t put out a press release on it until 3 p.m. Clearly they’re trying to limit attention to the report, rather than promote it. 

They shouldn’t get away with this. The DOT/CCSP report is one of the very few notable climate change impacts assessments put out under the aegis of the CCSP since use of or follow-on to the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts was suppressed by the White House early in the Bush administration, without any scientific or legal justification.

An extract from the 10-page Executive Summary of the report:

The changing climate raises critical questions for the transportation sector in the United States. As global temperatures increase, sea levels rise, and weather patterns change, the stewards of our Nation’s infrastructure are challenged to consider how these changes may affect the country’s roads, airports, rail, transit systems, and ports. The U.S. transportation network – built and maintained through substantial public and private investment – is vital to the Nation’s economy and the quality of our communities. Yet little research has been conducted to identify what risks this system faces from climate change, or what steps managers and policy makers can take today to ensure the safety and resilience of our vital transportation system.
This study: The Impacts of Climate Change and Variability on Transportation Systems and Infrastructure: Gulf Coast Study, Phase I has investigated these questions through a case study of a segment of the U.S. central Gulf Coast. The research, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has been conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP). The study is 1 of 21 “synthesis and assessment” products planned and sponsored by CCSP. The interdisciplinary research team included experts in climate and meteorology; hydrology and natural systems; transportation; and decision support.
A case study approach was selected for this research as an approach that would generate useful information for local and regional decision makers, while helping to develop research methodologies for application in other locations.
The Gulf Coast study area includes 48 contiguous coastal counties in four States, running from Houston/Galveston, TX, to Mobile, AL. This region is home to almost 10 million people living in a range of urban and rural settings and contains critical transportation infrastructure that provides vital service to its constituent States and the Nation as a whole.
Given the scale and strategic importance of the region’s transportation infrastructure, it is critical to consider the potential vulnerabilities to the network that may be presented by climate change. A better understanding of these risks will help inform transportation managers as they plan future investments.
Climate Change Has Implications for Gulf Coast Transportation
The four key climate drivers in the region: rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, rising relative sea levels, and increasing storm intensity, present clear risks to transportation infrastructure in the study area. These factors can be incorporated into today’s transportation decisions to help prepare for and adapt to changing environmental conditions.
·      Warming temperatures may require changes in materials, maintenance, and operations. The combined effects of an increase in mean and extreme high temperatures across the study region are likely to affect the construction, maintenance, and operations of transportation infrastructure and vehicles. Higher temperatures may also suggest areas for materials and technology innovation to develop new, more heat-tolerant materials. Some types of infrastructure deteriorate more quickly at temperatures above 32.2°C (90°F). As the number of very hot days increases, different materials may be required. Further, restrictions on work crews may lengthen construction times. Rail lines may be affected by more frequent rail buckling due to an increase in daily high temperatures. Ports, maintenance facilities, and terminals are expected to require increased refrigeration and cooling. Finally, higher temperatures affect aircraft performance and the runway lengths that are required. However, advances in aircraft technology are expected to offset the potential effects of the temperature increases analyzed in this report, so that current runway lengths are likely to be sufficient. The effects of increases in average temperatures and in the number of very hot days will have to be addressed in designing and planning for vehicles, facilities, and operations.
·      Changes in precipitation patterns may increase short-term flooding. The analysis of future annual precipitation change based on results of climate model runs is inconclusive: some models indicate an increase in average precipitation and some indicate a decrease. In either case, the hotter climate may reduce soil moisture and average run-off, possibly necessitating changes in right-of-way land management. The potential of changes in heavy rainfall may have more significant consequences for transportation; more frequent extreme precipitation events may result in more frequent flooding, stressing the capacity of existing drainage systems. The potential of extreme rainfall events and more frequent and prolonged flooding may disrupt traffic management, increase highway incidents, and impact airline schedules – putting additional strain on a heavily used and increasingly congested system. Further, prolonged flooding – inundation in excess of one week – can damage pavement substructure.
·      Relative sea level rise may inundate existing infrastructure. To assess the impact of relative sea level rise (RSLR), the implications of rises equal to 61 cm and 122 cm (2 and 4 ft) were examined. As discussed above, actual RSLR may be higher or somewhat lower than these levels. Under these scenarios, substantial portions of the transportation infrastructure in the region are at risk: 27 percent of the major roads, 9 percent of the rail lines, and 72 percent of the ports are at or below 122 cm (4 ft) in elevation, although portions of the infrastructure are guarded by protective structures such as levees and dikes. While protective structures will continue to be an important strategy in the area, rising sea levels significantly increase the challenge to transportation managers in ensuring reliable transportation services. Inundation of even small segments of the intermodal system can render much larger portions impassable, disrupting connectivity and access to the wider transportation network.
·      Increased storm intensity may lead to greater service disruption and infrastructure damage. This study examined the potential for flooding and damage associated with storm surge levels of 5.5 m and 7.0 m (18 ft and 23 ft). These modeled outputs are comparable to potential surge levels during severe storms in the region: Simulated storm surge from model runs across the central Gulf Coast demonstrated a 6.7- to 7.3-m (22- to 24-ft) potential surge for major hurricanes. These levels may be conservative; surge levels during Hurricane Katrina (rated a Category 3 at landfall) exceeded these heights in some locations. The specific location and strength of storm surges are of course determined by the scale and trajectory of individual tropical storms, which are difficult to predict. However, substantial portions of the region’s infrastructure are located at elevations below the thresholds examined, and recent storms have demonstrated that major hurricanes can produce flooding miles inland from the location of initial landfall. With storm surge at 7 m (23 ft), more than half of the area’s major highways (64 percent of Interstates; 57 percent of arterials), almost half of the rail miles, 29 airports, and virtually all of the ports are subject to flooding.
Climate Change Considerations Need to Be Incorporated in Transportation Decisions
This preliminary assessment raises clear cause for concern regarding the vulnerability of transportation infrastructure and services in the central Gulf Coast due to climate and coastal changes. The effects of potential climate changes, particularly when combined with other factors such as subsidence, are likely to be significant. These changes threaten to cause both major and minor disruptions to the smooth provision of transport service through the study area. As transportation agencies work to meet the challenges of congestion, safety, and environmental stewardship – as well as maintaining transportation infrastructure in good repair – addressing the risks posed by a changing climate can help ensure that the substantial investments in the region’s infrastructure are protected in the coming decades by appropriate adaptation strategies.
While several of the impacts of climate change identified above are significant, transportation planners and managers can incorporate effective adaptation strategies into transportation decisions today. Some level of adaptation will be required in the near term to address the effects of climate change processes that are underway. Concentrations of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will further force climate changes for the next three to four decades. The scale of adaptation required over the longer term – through this century – will be shaped in part by future emissions levels, as projections of lower-emission scenarios demonstrate lesser impacts.
[E]nvironmental considerations have long played a role in the planning and development of transportation projects. As awareness of the complex interactions among environmental factors and transportation systems has grown, the transportation community has assumed increasing responsibilities for environmental stewardship. Integration of climate factors into transportation decisions continues this trend. However, interviews with a number of transportation managers in the region confirmed that most agencies do not consider climate change projections per se in their long-range plans, infrastructure design, or siting decisions. This appears to be changing, spurred in part by the devastating effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The damage caused by these storms highlighted the need to incorporate more information and model data related to climate change and other long­term shifts in environmental conditions as transportation plans are developed and implemented.
New Approaches to Incorporate Climate Information
The incorporation of climate factors into transportation decisions may require new approaches.
•    Planning timeframes – The timeframes generally used for the Federal transportation planning process – 20 to 30 years – are short compared to the multidecadal period over which climate changes and other environmental processes occur. The longevity of transportation infrastructure – which can last beyond a century – argues for a long timeframe to examine potential impacts from climate change and other elements of the natural environment. While the current timeframe is realistic for investment planning, agencies need to consider incorporating longer-term climate change effects into their visioning and scenario planning processes that inform their long-range plans.
•    Risk assessment approach – Given the complexities of climate modeling and the inherent uncertainties regarding the magnitude and timing of impacts of climate factors, the deterministic methods currently used to support decisions cannot fully address the range of potential environmental conditions that transportation managers need to consider. Adopting an iterative risk management approach would provide transportation decision makers, public officials, and the public a more robust picture of the risks to – and level of resilience of – various components of the transportation network.

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