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The First Steps to Recovery

As part of a coordinated federal effort to address how climate change and extreme weather can stress the nation's security, the Office of Infrastructure Protection, within the Department of Homeland Security, is working to manage risks to critical infrastructure by supporting climate preparedness, adaptation and resilience efforts locally.

 

By Lisa Barr, M.SAME, and Steven Nider, M.SAME

   


wildfires in San Diego, 2007

FEMA PHOTO BY ANDREA BOOHER


 

Addressing the potential impacts of climate change on critical infrastructure requires managing many complex and interdependent risks facing the nation. 

Over the past few decades, the focus has been on changing waterways, shifting temperature patterns, land loss, air quality conditions and extreme weather events, and how these issues are affecting the environment, economy, national security and overall public well-being. While no single weather event can be attributed directly to climate change, there is broad scientific understanding that it can exacerbate the impact, frequency and intensity of extreme weather events that do occur. Consider extreme drought conditions. When unexpected heavy rainfall occurs in drought-ridden areas, the desiccated ground is unable to absorb much water. This can lead to intense runoff that overwhelms an area’s capacity to retain water. In such situations, major floods can follow—like those experienced in Colorado in 2013 and in Texas and Oklahoma in 2015. Early snow melt, greater rain-to-snow ratios and increasing evaporation also can exacerbate drought severity by robbing the land of a lasting water supply during drier seasons. These shifting weather patterns not only intensify extreme weather incidents, they contribute to broader environmental impacts such as sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, harm to fisheries and land loss.

These types of weather events and corresponding environmental impacts also directly impact the operation of critical infrastructure that provides so many services upon which the country relies. America’s economic vitality and its national security depend on the infrastructure systems that provide water and wastewater, energy, transportation, communications and emergency response. Often taken for granted, infrastructure is essential for functioning communities. It forms the basis of trade. It fuels the engines of commerce. And it is only when an incident occurs—leading to a disruption in services people have come to expect—that the attention of most of us is drawn to the very importance of infrastructure itself.


AWARENESS OF THE FUTURE

Extreme weather events have always had severe consequences. However, data indicates that both the frequency and cost of these events, including hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and debilitating drought conditions, has increased. In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center published a study on natural disasters in the United States from 1980 to 2011. The report, “U.S. Billion-dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Data Sources, Trends, Accuracy and Biases,” demonstrates a growing trend in annual losses from disasters attributable to an increase in the frequency of billion-dollar disasters, adjusted for inflation, of about 5 percent per year.

While critical infrastructure is typically designed to withstand weather-related stressors common in a particular locality, climate pattern shifts increase the range and type of potential risks facing infrastructure. Most infrastructure being built today is expected to last for 50 years or longer. Investing in infrastructure that was not designed to take into account potential changes to an area’s future climate can result in significant increases in cost later on and heighten the potential for unplanned outages and failures. It is important to understand how future climates might affect these investments in the coming decades and ensure, where possible, that investments are made upfront to anticipate these changes. This requires forward planning that considers risks and uncertainties associated with climate change, rather than reliance on models solely based on past events. It also requires an understanding that promoting adaptation in built infrastructure may be a better strategic investment than relying on rebuilding or redesigning if an incident does occur.

Colorado flooding

U.S. ARMY NATIONAL GUARD PHOTO BY STAFF SGT. JECCA GEFFRE


 

UNDERSTANDING THE RISKS

A number of examples underscore the risk of delays, disruptions and failure that the projected impacts of climate change pose to our critical infrastructure systems. Many of the nation’s busiest air and sea ports are in low-lying coastal areas. This makes them particularly vulnerable to inundation as a result of rising sea levels.

In the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, many transportation infrastructure facilities (including both Newark Liberty International Airport and LaGuardia Airport) lie within the range of current and projected 50-year coastal storm surges. In the Gulf Coast, home to several of the largest sea ports in the United States, the combination of relative sea level rise and more intense hurricanes and tropical storms could lead to significant disruptions and damage. In addition, the increasingly interconnected nature of our critical infra-structure creates new vulnerabilities and opportunities for disruption across supply chains. Two years ago, high temperatures and high demand tripped a transformer and transmission line in Yuma, Ariz., triggering a chain of events that shut down the San Onofre nuclear power plant. This led to a large-scale power outage across the entire San Diego distribution system. Even though steps have been taken to address the vulnerabilities that led to the outages—including incorporating automated switching and distribution supervisory control and data acquisition systems to provide utilities with enhanced remote monitoring capability and the ability to proactively address outages—there is more work still to do.

The prevalence of transnational supply chains makes it necessary to consider how incidents affecting infrastructure in one country have the potential to affect operations in others. As companies optimize operations and adopt more efficient supply chains, they become increasingly dependent on uninterrupted operations in other sectors. These may be nationally or internationally based.  Individual components of this expansive network can unintentionally introduce vulnerabilities and dependencies that could result in cascading effects across the network when a single incident occurs.


TAKING ACTION LOCALLY

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognizes that climate change and extreme weather have the potential to strain our resources, divert attention from counterterrorism efforts, aggravate vulnerabilities at home and abroad, and destabilize the lifeline functions upon which we rely. To proactively plan for this risk environment, DHS developed a Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap and Climate Action Plan, which aligns to the President’s Climate Action Plan and Executive Order 13653—Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change.

Recently, the DHS National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) completed a national study showing how infrastructure exposure to natural disasters could shift in regions across the country as a result of anticipated shifts in climate over the next 50 years. This strategic level view allows the department to focus programs and initiatives around areas of the United States that are facing the highest risk or uncertainty from climate change.

 


Most infrastructure being built today is expected to last for 50 years or longer. Investing in infrastructure that was not designed to take into account potential changes to an area’s future climate can result in significant increases in cost later on and heighten the potential for unplanned outages and failures.


 

As part of a coordinated federal effort to address these policies, NPPD’s Office of Infrastructure Protection is working to manage risks to critical infrastructure by supporting climate preparedness, adaptation and resilience efforts locally. In June 2014, NPPD—in collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and NOAA—sponsored a Climate Adaptation Exercise in Charleston, S.C. This exercise, hosted by the College of Charleston, brought together 65 stakeholders from the private sector, public utilities, academia, and federal, state and local governments, as well as nongovernmental entities. The intent was to develop strategies, build decision-support planning tools and processes, and coordinate stakeholder planning efforts related to climate adaptation and infrastructure resilience. The result of the exercise led to the creation of the Charleston Resilience Network. The Charleston Resilience Network is a volunteer-based effort comprised of local public and private sector organizations that have a collective interest in the resilience of their communities, supporting infrastructure and socio-economic continuity to both episodic and chronic hazards.

Most recently in May 2015, NPPD, building off the first climate regional resiliency assessment in Casco Bay, Maine, conducted a tabletop exercise focusing on climate change and adaptation planning. The exercise gathered 70 representatives from federal, state and local governments, the emergency management community, academia, and public and private owners/operators of infrastructure from the water, communications, transportation and energy sectors. One of the outcomes of the exercise was the development of a locally focused climate resilience toolkit.


BUILDING COLLABORATIVE SUPPORT

Initiatives like those in Charleston and Casco Bay have provided NPPD with clearly identified requirements where DHS can provide value to local areas focusing on resilience and long-term planning. The outreach may include focusing exercises, workshops and planning support on areas facing key challenges of climate change and in need of coordinated technical assistance. It could involve creating locally focused and tailored toolkits of information to support incremental and long-term planning. It also may entail working across the federal government to ensure coordinated delivery of services requested by local stakeholders, partners, or regional networks.

Efforts like these are critical to countering the climate risks our infrastructure faces today—because the real impact is so often felt first, and longest, at the local level. NPPD is using a proven risk management framework to support climate preparedness, adaptation and resilience. Managing the many risks that communities face to be able to maintain essential services provided by critical infrastructure, regardless of the hazard or threat, requires deliberate preparation and close coordination in order to facilitate federal, state, local, tribal, private-sector and nonprofit-sector planning and response efforts.

So when a disruption does occur, a community can be confident that it worked to help ensure that those essential services and functions are brought back to full operation as quickly as possible.

   


 

Lisa Barr, M.SAME, is Senior Policy Analyst and Resilience Coordinator, and Steven Nider, M.SAME, is Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary, Office of Infrastructure Protection, National Protection and Programs Directorate, Department of Homeland Security. They can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., respectively.