ADAPTATION:

States ponder plans and budgets for a future in which 'normal' is different

In the last five years or so, weather changes have taken a toll on Michigan's roads.

Heavy rains have overpowered drains, causing water to spill onto the road and wash whole sections away. The post-winter thaw starts earlier than it used to. That causes more cracks in the pavement than usual, shortening a road's life.

These weather changes can't be directly linked to climate change. Nevertheless, the bulk of climate science suggests that similar events will become more frequent and severe in the future.

To that, a group of researchers is saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Last week, think tank Resources for the Future released the findings of a two-year research campaign on adaptation to climate change. The impacts of climate change are broadly understood, the research says, but there's no telling exactly where, when and how hard these impacts will strike.

Washington can't, therefore, build every levee and shore up every dam -- or prepare for every impact on health, ecosystems, agriculture and other areas.

But it can do research on specific regions, giving localities a better idea of what to expect in their own neighborhoods. It can make investments that no company will make. It can tell its agencies to get the adaptation ball rolling.

And that would empower local governments to better prepare themselves, RFF says.

"Local and state decisionmakers likely do not have the resources necessary to fully understand the uncertainties they face and will need to rely on the research capacity of the federal government to supplement their knowledge," the study says.

Thinking way beyond potholes

In Michigan, the state Department of Transportation has already begun to move. It is consulting the state climatologist, a professor at Michigan State University, on possible impacts. And next year, it wants to start developing a climate model for the region so it can plan for the future.

"We're looking for more Michigan- or Great Lakes-level detail on a climate model, which we haven't seen yet," said Niles Annelin, an environmental policy specialist at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

Part of Michigan's research next year will be "asset management": looking at where the climate effects may strike, then looking at whether the infrastructure there can stand strong.

It also means thinking about cost -- which upgrades are worth it, and which ones are probably too expensive.

"Given budget issues, it's not likely that we'd actually go out and change anything now," Annelin said. Nevertheless, it's good to have information now "so that when it is time to replace a bridge or redo a section of roadway, that we can just have this knowledge available to us."

Michigan believes this might not just save infrastructure -- it could also save money.

For example, climate change may bring more snow to Michigan, Annelin said. If MDOT had a sense of where that snow is going to fall, then its snowplows would have to spend less time searching and burning pricey fuel. Plus, those roads would last longer than if they sat under snow.

Can taller bridges come from sagging budgets?

According to RFF, there's evidence that adaptation saves money in the long run. A study of Alaska, for example, found that adaptation of the state's infrastructure -- roads, airports, water systems, public buildings and telecommunications -- would cost 13 percent less by 2030 than if the state did maintenance on a case-by-case basis. By 2080, the savings could reach up to 45 percent.

Some state departments of transportation are looking that far ahead, even as they face thinning budgets. North Carolina, for instance, is about to replace a 50-year-old bridge with one that's about 10 feet taller, to guard it against rising seas.

The current Bonner Bridge connects mainland North Carolina to the chain of islands called the Outer Banks. When the replacement bridge is finished, it's expected to last 75 years -- a period that ensures it will experience some effects of climate change.

The 10-foot rise won't add significant cost to the bridge, said Victor Barbour, director of technical services at the North Carolina Department of Transportation. But it could very well save the state a lot of money.

"We are building bridge where there is land right now, with the future think that there may not be land there as a result of sea level rise," he said.

Anticipating those changes, engineers and construction crews are beginning to consider their trade differently. In the past, they didn't have to design for the possibility of stronger floods, deeper droughts and more frequent storms.

"They've always made assumptions about those characteristics in designing and locating projects in the past, but those functions were that those conditions would always remain static," said Steve Seidel, vice president for policy analysis at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

"What we're saying now is that that isn't probably a good assumption anymore," he said. "The worst possible assumption is to assume that there won't be changes in climate conditions."