Warming climate poses ‘unprecedented threat’ to transport

Published by Kayle Crosson on

February 28th, 2020

Transport infrastructure in Ireland is set to face unprecedented threats in a warming climate, according to a new UN report. 

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) found that transport in the bloc will face unparalleled challenges both on coastlines and inland. 

Due to higher levels of precipitation, the report found that the UK and Ireland will both see more expansive and frequent flooding.

In just 20 years, UK flooding costs could increase up to £500 million the report said. On a regional level, future costs of bridge protection against flooding could climb to over €500 million per annum within the EU. 

Ireland will be, and already is, vulnerable to river flooding, and the report estimates that it will be costly for inland transport networks as “many main roads and railways are located within and/or crossing flood plains”. 

Irish Rail has already spent large sums to raise low-lying sections of the Dublin to Sligo line between Drumod and Carrick on Shannon due to the threat of flooding along the Shannon. Catchments areas in counties Westmeath, Offaly and Roscommon flooded badly this week following similar events in both 2009 and 2016.

In addition to infrastructure damages, heavy rainfall can also lead to landslides in mountainous areas, rain-related road accidents, and traffic disruptions, the report found.

Railroad tracks could also be submerged and tunnels could become impassable in times of flooding, creating further problems for the transport industry to tackle. 

Flooding in Athlone in 2016 Photo: Niall Sargent

Coastal flooding and heat damage 

On European coasts, transport will be “disproportionately” impacted by climate variability due to storm surges and higher sea levels, the report states. 

It adds that coastal flooding could render whole transportation systems “unusable” during a storm surge and could disrupt supply chains for long stretches of time. 

Seaports could see a 50 per cent increase in inundation risks by 2030, particularly along the North Sea coast which accounts for as much as 15 per cent of the world’s cargo transport. 

Longer and higher temperature-fuelled heatwaves will also have a detrimental impact on inland transportation as the planet warms, the report adds. 

Excessive heat can lead to a number of issues for road infrastructure, including pavement damage, asphalt rutting and thermal-generated damage to bridges. 

Asphalt rutting, the report says, would result in speed restrictions and would make road travel more dangerous, particularly in rainy conditions. 

Closures needed to repair these infrastructure problems may also “impact the efficient movement of goods” leading to “economic losses”. 

Railroads may experience track buckling with higher temperatures, which is when the steel-made rails expand and curve, rendering them unusable. 

The melting of permafrost in hotter temperatures will also jeopardize road and rail transport infrastructure in the Arctic regions of Europe. 

If emissions continue on an unchecked, business-as-usual trajectory, the financial costs of the climate crisis will reach far beyond the transport sector, the report warns.

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Kayle Crosson

Kayle is a multimedia journalist focused on climate and environmental issues and contributes to The Irish Times and The Green News.