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Adaptation Examples: Transportation

Truck driving down a highway

Adaptation Examples in Transportation

Key Points
  • Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is piloting projects to minimize permafrost melting under roads.
  • California is re-routing parts of Highway 1 that are at high risk of erosion and sea level rise.
  • Piscataqua Regional Estuary Partnership in New Hampshire  is identifying roads and culverts that are likely to be sensitive to increased precipitation and storms.
  • The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has created a conceptual model to help local transportation officials evaluate vulnerability of local transportation infrastructure.

Sea level rise, more intense storms, and thawing permafrost are some of the impacts of climate change that are likely to affect transportation systems. To learn more about how climate change can impact transportation systems, visit the Transportation Impacts section.

Federal, state, and local agencies are taking steps to protect transportation systems from climate change impacts. Adaptation measures across the country are shaped by local impacts. Specific adaptation approaches include:

  • Raising the level of critical infrastructure
  • Changing construction and design standards of transportation infrastructure, such as bridges, levees, roads, railways, and airports
  • Abandoning or rebuilding important infrastructure in less vulnerable areas

The following case studies, examples, and related links are illustrative of transportation adaptation actions and not intended to be comprehensive. Another example of adaptation related to transportation–the plans being made by the U.S. Navy to deal with the loss of sea ice in the Arctic–can be found in the Alaska Impacts & Adaptation page. 

Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities addresses changes in permafrost

Photograph of truck attempting to cross a collapsed road.

In Alaska, melting permafrost causes a road to collapse. Source: Federal Highway Administration (2010)

Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (ADOT & PF) manages a vast and complex network of transportation infrastructure, including over 14,000 miles of public roads, numerous bridges, rural airports, and harbors. This network is exposed to a variety of changes in climate that result in climate change impacts.

The Northern Region Maintenance and Operation agency of ADOT & PF spends approximately $10 million each year (PDF) Exit EPA Disclaimer to address damage to roads from the melting of frozen soil—also known as permafrost. The ADOT & PF is piloting the use of an alternative advanced cooling technology to absorb heat from the frozen soil and prevent thawing. The agency is also evaluating a method of permafrost protection that increases air circulation Exit EPA Disclaimer to maintain freezing temperatures below the road surface. This technology is currently being tested on the University of Alaska’s Fairbanks campus, through a partnership between the University and ADOT & PF. These efforts will help inform planning for the construction of new roads that can be protected against the adverse effects of thawing permafrost.

To learn more about adaptation measures in the region, visit the Alaska Impacts & Adaptation page.

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California Department of Transportation Realigns Highway 1

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is integrating climate considerations into its strategic planning. In San Luis Obispo County, Caltrans Exit EPA Disclaimer is moving part of Highway 1 inland due to current and projected coastal erosion and sea level rise. Caltrans expects this realignment to protect the iconic road for the next 100 years. Exit EPA Disclaimer In addition, the realignment is designed to minimize impacts to coastal resources by taking into account existing land use and conservation agreements.

Hybrid aerial photograph and map that shows the existing Highway One route along the coast with two viewpoints. A second set of arrows along an inland route that is labeled View enlarged image

Caltrans proposed the route and viewpoints with purple arrows to replace the existing portion of Highway 1 that is closer to the coast. Source: California Department of Transportation (2008) Exit EPA Disclaimer

For more information about adaptation efforts in California, visit the Southwest Impacts & Adaptation page. To learn more about coastal adaptation, visit the Coastal Impacts & Adaptation page.

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Piscataqua Regional Estuary Program in New Hampshire pinpoints sensitive roads and culverts

The Piscataqua Regional Estuary Partnership, supported by the EPA’s Climate Ready Estuaries program, used various evaluation methods to analyze and pinpoint the roads and culverts affected by changes in rainfall and extreme storm events. The project also estimated the costs of replacing and strengthening existing infrastructure, which can help decision-makers make an economic case for pursuing adaptation.

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Federal Highway Administration assesses the vulnerability of transportation networks

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) developed a conceptual model for assessing the vulnerability of transportation systems to climate change. FHWA is working with five teams of transportation planners that are testing the model. These teams include the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in San Francisco, California; the New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT)/North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority; Virginia DOT; Washington State DOT; and the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization in Hawaii. Lessons learned from these pilot projects will inform future efforts to develop guidance for other transportation agencies addressing impacts of climate change.

FHWA is also studying climate change impacts on transportation networks in the Central Gulf Coast region and evaluating adaptation options. The study is focused on:

  • Understanding climate change effects on transportation infrastructure
  • Identifying vulnerable transportation infrastructure in Mobile, Alabama
  • Conducting detailed engineering and risk studies to identify options for strengthening critical transportation infrastructure
  • Developing adaptation tools and methods that can be applied to other locations

To learn more about climate adaptation in the Gulf Coast, visit the Southeast Impacts & Adaptation page.

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