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Climate-Resilient Infrastructure: The Next Frontier

Item is held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.CNN, Climate Progress and others have reported this season’s local news hit: the growing trend in water pipelines bursting in cities and towns across America. As one Oklahoma utilities manager reports, the culprit is not difficult to spot:

As days of 100 degree-plus temperatures bake the region, the utility reports 685 water main breaks since July alone. That’s an estimated rate of four times normal…”It’s the heat and the high water usage,” Ragan said. High temperatures can dry soil so that it shrinks away from buried pipes. Increased water usage raises pressure inside the water lines. Both factors add strain to pipeline walls, making older pipes more susceptible to bursting.

It is not surprising that water mains, some dating back over a hundred years during the first expansion of centralized water systems in the U.S. and virtually neglected since then, are breaking.  However, the age and neglect of infrastructure is only half the story. A changing climate, followed by more severe and extended droughts, is making this daunting problem even more difficult to address (not to mention the enormous challenge of expanding water and sanitation services to the billions of people who don’t even have access.)

The infrastructure of yesterday was built during a time of relative climate stability. The infrastructure of tomorrow will require a degree of resiliency that engineers have never had to concern themselves with. Now that we’ve found evidence of water on Mars, perhaps the next frontier should be climate-proofing the aging water infrastructure under our own feet.

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