January 25, 2023

Climate change has made natural disasters – like wildfires, hurricanes and floods – more frequent and more severe. And that poses a risk to infrastructure. 

For planners and engineers, that makes new monitoring tools an imperative. And increasingly, these tools are being used to decide where infrastructure is built. 

We know that infrastructure will have to cope with disasters by being more robust and resilient, and also monitored 24/7 intelligently,” said Tiago Nascimento, IEEE member. “This is mandatory since the threat to infrastructure is rising due to the growth of the strength of the natural disasters climate change is bringing every year.”

Climate-Resilient Infrastructure

The list of ways that disasters challenge infrastructure is long. 

Wildfires, whipped up by high winds, can damage power lines which, in turn, can spark new fires. Utilities in areas prone to wildfires have started burying power cables and hardening structures in response. Satellite data, meanwhile, is used to predict the potential risk and paths of wildfires to help inform how firefighting resources are allocated and, in rare instances, preemptively turn off power to some locations. 

Floods, which rank among the costliest natural disasters, are more common in coastal areas due to rising sea levels. Before storms occur, companies plan for major flooding with satellite mapping tools that tell them which pieces of critical infrastructure – from power stations to telecommunications facilities – might be at risk over a 30- or 50-year period. 

Hurricanes can damage bridges and roads, cutting off evacuation routes for civilians, making it harder for first responders to reach survivors. And many coastal cities are changing building codes to ensure resilience.

“When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, several utilities reconsidered where systems and backup systems are installed in facilities. Basement levels are no longer viable,” said IEEE Senior Member Paul Kostek. 

The Cutting Edge

Advances in satellite technology are mapping the earth’s surface to assess changes – sometimes down to the millimeter. 

“Interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) is now a very powerful tool to monitor the displacement of infrastructures, which would enable early warning of risks,” said Feng Xu, IEEE Senior Member.

In one recently published paper, researchers examined the rate of ground subsidence in the coastal city of Tianjin in China. Ground subsidence means that ground is sinking relative to other geographic features, and there can be a number of causes, including the removal of groundwater. Researchers used InSAR data to determine that the rate of subsidence in downtown Tianjin had slowed to 8mm per year after the installation of a major water pipeline. That rate marked a major decline from previous years when the ground had been shrinking by as much as 110mm per year. 

Subsidence has become a major cause for concern in many cities across the world, in part because it exacerbates the risk of sea level rise.  When the ground shrinks at the same time that seas are rising, the risk of flooding is greater. 

InSAR is also being used to monitor earth surface deformation, and thus it can also be used to guide the selection of the site for construction of major infrastructure projects, Xu said. 

And satellite observation is getting better – with researchers working with artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify the effects of natural disasters faster, more accurately and at a finer resolution.

Learn More: Integrating renewable energy into electricity grids is a key challenge for grid operators. The experience of grid operators in Tasmania, an island off the coast of Australia with abundant sources of renewable energy, presents a fascinating case study with global lessons. If you’d like to learn more, check out this article from IEEE Electrification magazine.


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