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Photo by Steve Miller, Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

On high tides, this Portsmouth causeway is almost submerged, illustrating the importance of infrastructure engineers to collaborate with climate scientists.
Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Climate change will be rough on roads, bridges; UNH to lead a long-term study

By UNH News Service: As our climate changes, will roadways built to withstand New England winters hold up to Maryland-like summers? If sea levels rise, will ships still be able to pass under bridges? How will the bridges themselves survive more powerful storms?

A new National Science Foundation grant led by researchers from the University of New Hampshire hopes to jumpstart our ability to answer these questions by bridging the knowledge gap between climate scientists, who understand where the Earth’s climate is headed in the future, and the civil engineers and transportation officials who help build those roads and bridges today. The four-year grant, through the NSF’s Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) – Research Coordination Networks (RCN) program, is for $750,000.

“This grant aims to fill a very big void in the field,” says UNH professor of civil engineering Jennifer Jacobs, principal investigator on the grant.

Although road and bridge engineers recognize the importance of planning for a changing climate in their work, they lack the capability of readily using the relevant data from climate scientists. “The climate change community and the infrastructure engineers are not yet talking. They’re not at the same meetings, they’re not in the same departments at universities,” Jacobs adds.

“If climate is changing, using weather data from 20 years ago is not going to represent what the road will experience in the next 20 years,” says Jo Daniel, co-principal investigator and associate professor of civil engineering at UNH. The researchers note that inadequate designs for a changing climate could ultimately cost the nation tens of billions of dollars.

The grant will fund the creation of the Infrastructure and Climate Network, or ICNet, to support the integration of climate science and engineering research for sustainable transportation infrastructure. Focused on the northeast, the ICNet currently comprises more than 50 researchers representing more than 80 percent of the graduate degree-granting civil engineering departments in the region. Representatives from state departments of transportation and practicing engineers will also be involved.

ICNet will convene annual workshops to bring these researchers together; participants will build and populate a Web-based “knowledge commons” for sharing of resources and information. The workshops will use an “Anytown Northeast” case study. Unique to this process, the researchers say, is the inclusion of social scientists who will assist in helping the scientists and engineers create new working relationships and lines of communication.

Investigators from a half-dozen schools around the country will also monitor and assess the collaborative process to derive lessons that could be translated to other regions and issues. The researchers anticipate that this New England-based collaborative could be replicated elsewhere.