Critical Infrastructure & Climate Adaptation

Posted: August 20, 2015 at 3:31 pm, Last Updated: August 21, 2015 at 10:06 am

By Lisa Barr & Steven Nider
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
National Protection and Programs Directorate
Office of Infrastructure Protection

Addressing the potential impacts of climate change on critical infrastructure requires managing the complex and interdependent risks facing this Nation. Over the past several decades, focus has heightened on changing waterways, shifting temperature patterns, air quality conditions, lost land, and extreme weather events, and how these issues are affecting the environment, economy, national security, and overall public wellbeing.

While no single weather event can be attributed directly to climate change, there is broad scientific understanding that it can exacerbate the impact, frequency, and intensity of extreme weather events that do occur. Consider extreme drought conditions: when unexpected heavy rainfall occurs in drought-ridden areas, the desiccated ground is unable to absorb much water, resulting in intense runoff that can overwhelm an area’s capacity to retain water. In such conditions, severe floods—like those experienced in Colorado in 2013—can occur.[1] Other factors, like early snow melt, greater ratio of rain to snow, and greater evaporation, can exacerbate drought severity by robbing the land of a lasting water supply during drier seasons. These shifting weather patterns not only exacerbate extreme weather incidents, but also contribute to broader environmental impacts, such as rising sea levels, saltwater intrusion, harm to fisheries, and loss of land.

These types of weather events and corresponding environmental impacts also directly impact the operations of the infrastructure that provides services upon which people rely, such as water, energy, transportation, communications, and emergency services. Our daily lives, economic vitality, and national security depend on the infrastructure systems that provide these essential services. While often taken for granted, infrastructure is essential for functioning communities, and it is the basis of trade and the engine of commerce. It is often only when an incident occurs—leading to a disruption in services people have come to expect—that most peoples’ attention is drawn to the importance of infrastructure itself.

Extreme weather events—from hurricanes and flooding to wildfires and debilitating drought conditions in the Western states—have always had severe consequences, but data indicates that both the frequency and cost of these events have increased. In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) published a study on natural disasters in the United States from 1980-2011 that demonstrates a growing trend in annual losses from disasters attributable to an increase in the frequency of billion-dollar disasters—adjusted for inflation—of about five percent per year.[2]

Impacts to Critical Infrastructure

Critical infrastructure is typically designed to withstand the weather-related stressors common in a particular locality, but shifts in climate patterns increase the range and type of potential risks now facing infrastructure. Most infrastructures being built today are expected to last for 50 years or longer.[3] Investing in infrastructure that was not designed to take into account potential changes to an area’s future climate can result in significant increases in cost later on, and it can increase the potential for unplanned outages and failures. Therefore, it is important to understand how future climates might affect life-cycle costs of these investments in the coming decades and to ensure that, where possible, investments are made up front to anticipate these changes. This requires forward planning that considers risks and uncertainties associated with climate change, rather than reliance on models solely based on past events. It also requires an understanding that promoting adaptation in building infrastructure may be a better strategic investment than relying on rebuilding or redesigning infrastructure after an incident has occurred. That understanding should include evaluation of how depletion or alteration of natural resources may impact infrastructure operations.

A number of examples underscore the risk of delays, disruptions, damage, and failure that the projected impacts of climate change pose to our critical infrastructure systems. Many of the Nation’s busiest air and sea ports are in low-lying coastal areas, making them particularly vulnerable to inundation as a result of rising sea levels. In the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, many transportation infrastructure facilities (including Newark and LaGuardia airports) lie within the range of current and projected 50-year coastal storm surges.[4] In the Gulf Coast—home to several of the largest sea ports in the United States—the combination of relative sea level rise and more intense hurricanes and tropical storms could lead to significant disruptions and damage.[5]

In addition, the increasingly interconnected nature of our critical infrastructure creates new vulnerabilities and opportunities for disruption across supply chains. Two years ago, high temperatures and high demand tripped a transformer and transmission line in Yuma, Arizona, triggering a chain of events that shut down the San Onofre nuclear power plant, leading to a large-scale power outage across the entire San Diego distribution system. Steps have been taken to address the vulnerabilities that led to such outages, including enabling automated switching and distribution SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems to provide utilities with enhanced capabilities for remote monitoring and the ability to proactively address outages. However, according to a report produced for the Department of Energy, extreme weather events associated with climate change still create vulnerabilities in infrastructure systems, requiring more work going forward.[6]

Also, the prevalence of transnational supply chains makes it necessary to consider how incidents affecting infrastructure in one country have the potential to affect operations in others. As companies optimize operations and adopt more efficient supply chains, they become increasingly dependent on uninterrupted operations in other sectors, which may be nationally or internationally based. Individual components of this expansive network can unintentionally introduce vulnerabilities and dependencies that can result in cascading effects across the network when a single incident occurs.

Taking Action

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognizes that climate change and extreme weather have the potential to strain our resources, divert attention from counterterrorism efforts, aggravate vulnerabilities at home and abroad, and destabilize the lifeline functions upon which we rely. To proactively plan for this risk environment, DHS developed a Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap and Climate Action Plan, which aligns to the President’s Climate Action Plan and Executive Order 13653, Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change.[7]

NIPP Timeline

“Recently, the DHS National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) completed a national study showing how infrastructure exposure to natural disasters could shift in regions across the country as a result of anticipated shifts in climate over the next 50 years.”[8] This strategic-level overview across the Nation allows the Department to focus its programs and initiatives around areas of the country facing the highest risk or uncertainty from climate change.

As part of a coordinated Federal effort to address these policies, NPPD is working to manage risks to critical infrastructure by supporting climate preparedness, adaptation, and resilience efforts locally. In June 2014, NPPD—in collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and NOAA—sponsored a Climate Adaptation Exercise in Charleston, South Carolina.[9] This exercise was hosted by the College of Charleston, and it brought together 65 stakeholders from across the critical infrastructure community, including private-sector operators, public utilities, academia, Federal, state and local governments, emergency management, as well as nongovernmental entities. The group worked to develop strategies, build decision support planning tools and processes, and coordinate stakeholder planning efforts related to climate adaptation and infrastructure resilience. The results from this exercise led to the creation of the Charleston Resilience Network (CRN) in 2015. CRN is a volunteer-based effort comprised of local public- and private-sector stakeholder organizations that have a collective interest in the resilience of their communities, supporting infrastructure and socio-economic continuity to both episodic and chronic hazards.[10]

A subsequent tabletop exercise was conducted in the Tampa region in March of 2015. The exercise provided 82 participants from a diverse cross-section of different sectors to meet, share information, hear different perspectives, and openly discuss issues related to critical infrastructure protection.

Tampa TTXParticipants at the Tampa TTX discuss potential impacts of extreme weather.

In May 2015, building off the climate regional resiliency assessment in Casco Bay, Maine, NPPD conducted a tabletop exercise focusing on climate change and adaptation planning. This assessment and subsequent exercise brought together 70 representatives from Federal, state, local governments, the emergency management community, academia, and public and private owners/operators of infrastructure. Importantly, the exercise featured representatives from the water, communications, transportation, and energy sectors. This exercise led to the development of a locally focused climate resilience toolkit.[11]

These and other initiatives have provided NPPD with clearly identified opportunities where the Department can provide value to local areas focusing on resilience and long-term planning. These include focusing programs and initiatives on local/regional areas in the country currently facing key challenges of climate change and in need of coordinated technical assistance, exercises, workshops, and planning support. Other support can include creating locally focused and tailored toolkits of information to support incremental and long-term planning and working across the Federal government to ensure coordinated delivery of services requested by local stakeholders, partners, or regional networks.

Efforts like these are critical to countering the climate risks our infrastructure faces today. NPPD is using a proven risk management framework to support climate preparedness and infrastructure resilience at the local level and beyond. Managing these risks requires deliberate preparation, close cooperation, and coordinated planning to facilitate Federal, state, local, tribal, private-sector, and nonprofit-sector efforts. This coordination is key to maintaining the essential services provided by critical infrastructure to our communities regardless of the hazard or threat—and, when a disruption occurs, to ensure essential services and functions are brought back to full operations as quickly as possible.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article was previously published in The Military Engineer magazine, Volume 107, Number 696, pages 67-69, Copyright 2015, reprinted with permission of the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME).

About the Authors

Lisa Barr is a Senior Policy Analyst and Resilience Coordinator at the Department of Homeland Security; Office of Infrastructure Protection; Strategy, Policy, & Budget. Since 2013, she has led work on infrastructure resilience to climate hazards for NPPD. 

Steven Nider is Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary, Office of Infrastructure Protection, National Protection and Programs Directorate, Department of Homeland Security. He is currently leading the effort to establish the Infrastructure Development and Recovery (IDR) program, which aims to promote and facilitate critical infrastructure security and resilience. 


[1] “Boulder Area Flood of Septemeber 2013: Climate and Weather Information,” National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, accessed August 14, 2015, http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/psd/boulder/flood2013/.

[2] Richard W. Katz and Adam B. Smith. “U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Data Sources, Trends Accuracy, and Biases,” Natural Hazards 67, no. 2 (2013), available at http://www1.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub/data/papers/smith-and-katz-2013.pdf.

[3] “Climate Impacts on Transportation,” United States Environmental Protection Agency, last modified July 21, 2015, http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/impacts-adaptation/transportation.html.

[4] U.S. Global Change Research Program, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, ed. Thomas R. Karl, Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Peterson, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009), available at http://downloads.globalchange.gov/usimpacts/pdfs/climate-impacts-report.pdf.

[5] Ibid.

[6] U.S. Department of Energy: Office of Science, Climate Change and Infrastructure, Urban Systems, and Vulnerabilities: Technical Report to the U.S. Department of Energy in Support or the National Climate Assessment, (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2012), available at http://www.esd.ornl.gov/eess/Infrastructure.pdf.

[7] Exec. Order No. 13653, 78 Fed. Reg. 66819 (Nov. 6, 2013).

[8] Lisa Barr & Steven Nider, “The First Steps to Recovery,” The Military Engineer, July 2015, 67, available at http://themilitaryengineer.com/tme_online/2015_July_Aug/TME-JulyAug2015-Online-SM.pdf.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

Write to the Editors at ciprpt@gmu.edu