Climate Change could increase the risk of disruptions, damages, and failures across our land-based transportation system. 

The global transport sector is well exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather events. Climate change, which causes sea-level rise, extreme precipitation, coastal storms, landslides, extreme temperatures, and inland flooding, may exacerbate future risks.

Globally, average sea levels have swelled over 50 cm since 1880, with about seven of those centimetres gained in the last 25 years. Every year, the sea rises another .33cm. Transportation infrastructures in many coastal cities across the United States are extremely susceptible to sea-level rise. Boston, Virginia Beach, Charleston, Atlantic City, Miami, New Orleans, and New York City are already facing frequent inundation with thousands of kilometers of roads submerged. A report from the U.S. Department of  Transportation states that transport infrastructure in Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia would be the most vulnerable to sea-level rise in the coming decades.

Roads and railway lines around the coast of England are predicted to be swamped due to rising tides. Committee on Climate Change — the UK’s public advisory body — estimates that 1,600km of major roads, 650km of railway lines and 92 stations will be underwater by 2080.  Another study reveals that the most vulnerable rail line in the UK may be the stretch between Dawlish to Teignmouth in London, which would face frequent disruptions because of floods.  

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) states that more than 7,000km of roads in South America and the Caribbean Islands would be destroyed if sea levels rise by 50cm. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) predicts that the Caribbean region would lose almost 600km of roads and every fourth airport in their territory.

Climate change is expected to cause local changes in average and extreme temperatures, as well as changes in rainfall patterns, duration, and intensity. These changes can destroy roads, rail tracks, and airports across the world. 

Sea-level rise is occurring much faster than scientists expected – exposing roads to the destructive floods. A scene from Florida, USA.

Intense rainfall already brings Mumbai, India’s largest city, to a halt. More than 20,000 cars and 200 buses were submerged while hundreds of kilometers of roads were flooded following extreme precipitation in 2005. Mumbai, which receives around 250cm rainfall annually, has its main airport and hundreds of kilometers of roads and rail lines located in low lying areas.   Even a slight increase in rainfall can bring substantial damage to the infrastructures in the city.

The combination of intense hurricanes and tropical storms brings significant devastation to the transport sector worldwide. When Hurricane Mitch ripped through Central America, roads and rail lines were ruined across many countries. Nicaragua witnessed heavy and long-lasting rainfall for weeks, which caused landslides and floods, causing serious damage to the country’s infrastructures; more than 3,000 km of roads and 100 bridges were destroyed.

Rising temperatures also have adverse effects on the transport sector as extreme heat causes the roads to soften and expand creating ruts and potholes, particularly in high-traffic areas. More frequent and severe heat waves may cause rail tracks to expand and buckle resulting in quick detrition of the infrastructure.

Governments worldwide should play an elementary role in increasing the absorptive and restorative capacities of their transport infrastructures in the wake of climate change. Building resilient systems in the light of natural disasters and extreme weather events should be the basis of their economic decision-making process. Upgrading construction standards for roads, bridges, rail lines, and culverts can reduce the impacts of the climate crisis.