Infrastructure is so ubiquitous and reliable that most people do not realize that it is even there. But when we do get a failure in one of our infrastructure systems, well then we really do notice. Think about the last time there was a power cut, or you were caught in a traffic jam – or worse, you could not access social media. It is amazing how upset most people get when they don’t have access to the services that our infrastructure usually provides – even for a short time.
In the developed world we are lucky. Power cuts are rare and when they do happen it is likely to be for hours not days. Traffic jams usually only add tens of minutes to our journeys rather than hours or even days and how important was it to get your friends to “like” your last Facebook posting.
In the developing world, they are not so lucky. Power cuts can be frequent and long-lasting and often roads may be rendered impassable for months due to poor maintenance or as the result of some event like a big rainstorm. In fact many of the worst cases of infrastructure failure occur after a natural disaster such as an earthquake in Haiti or a hurricane in the Caribbean and this latter hazard is potentially becoming more threatening as our climate responds to our CO2 emissions.
Even in the developed world we face some difficult choices. Our infrastructure is expected to last for around a hundred years so how do we decide what is the correct magnitude of environmental loadings to design if for when we have relatively short weather records and how may our weather change in the next 100 years.
For this reason it is essential to use a multi-faceted and smart approach to design our infrastructure to resist environmental hazards. Consequence forecasting is one part of this type of approach and is a useful way of dealing with the more uncertain extreme but rare events or those associated with climate change. By translating short term weather forecasts into predictions of impacts and consequences we can muster resources in the correct locations to minimize weather related damage, rather than over designing our hard defences to deal with events that may never happen. It is a challenging time to be defending our infrastructure, but our greatest rewards are often associated with life’s biggest challenges.
Dr Sean Wilkinson is a Reader with the School of Engineering at the University of Newcastle in the UK and visited SMART during September & October looking at the effect of weather events on electricity networks. He specialises in ‘consequence forecasting’ that uses high resolution weather forecasts to predict damage to infrastructure and the consequences to communities.