Toronto's infrastructure has struggled to keep up with the climatic changes of recent decades, so Canada's biggest metropolis is now looking to the future to find the solutions it will need to be more resilient.
"There's no sense in building infrastructure that was designed for the weather patterns in the '60s or '70s," said Lawson Oates, director of the Toronto Environment Office. "We need to be thinking forward 20 to 30 years out."
The city isn't new to the climate issue, he said. In 1988, Toronto hosted the first major international congregation of scientists and politicians to combat global warming, which set aggressive emissions reductions goals and played an important role in establishing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But since then, the city has started to look inward and shift its focus toward adaptation.
Cities are often disproportionally affected by climate change but have the advantage of being able to act through adaptation, said former Toronto Mayor David Miller. "A mayor can't say, 'We're going to negotiate with another country about this'; we have to respond," he said.
In 2010, Toronto came up with the Climate Change Risk Assessment Tool, a unique process and software program that helps identify the city's vulnerable assets and services.
Toronto's Transportation Services Division (TSD) was the first to test the tool. It found that with the expected increase in severe weather events, the number of "extreme risk scenarios" facing the city's infrastructure could quadruple by 2050.
Anatomy of a traffic signal
"Knowing down the road we're going to have more freeze-thaw cycles than we do today, [we asked] what does that mean in terms of our assets? Delivery of services? Can we maintain roads? What impacts does it have on budgets and staff sources? We looked at everything," said Nazzareno Capano, manager of operational planning and policy at TSD.
"By taking some adaptive action to avoid a catastrophic failure, of a culvert, for example ... you will possibly avoid significant costs down the road," he said.
The risk assessment tool identified, for instance, that the city's traffic signals were vulnerable to severe hot and cold weather events. So to prevent the traffic signal controller boxes from overheating during future heat waves, the city installed fans in the boxes that turn on at 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) so it's less likely the controller will shut down.
Traffic lights were also changed from incandescent bulbs to light-emitting diodes, which produce less heat. But cooler lights are problematic in winter because they aren't warm enough to melt snow and ice off them, Capano said. The city is now looking to install shields above the lights to deflect the snow.
These types of actions are small but important steps in preparing the city's infrastructure for extreme conditions that are likely to become more frequent, Oates said. "And if they're done in the initial stages and not retrofitted, there are a lot of [financial] benefits to them."
Toronto's risk assessment tool was a key component of the city's "Ahead of the Storm" adaptation plan unanimously adopted by the City Council in 2008. Some have criticized the current mayor, Rob Ford, for bumping climate change and other environmental issues off the priority list in favor of spending cuts. However, he voted for the adaptation plan when he was a city councillor.
The province of Newfoundland and Labrador; the city of North York, Ontario; and Hong Kong have all expressed interest in using Toronto's tool, which the city licensed to share. It might also be the type of program cities in the United States need to help rebuild after Superstorm Sandy.
Cheap fix for an expensive washout
Another tool, developed by the Canadian Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee (PIEVC), has helped Toronto take its adaptation planning a step further and tie the climate risks to a specific piece of infrastructure.
"Going forward, we know these [climate] changes are coming," said David Lapp, a manager at Engineers Canada who helped develop the tool. "As engineers, we're not too worried about why it's happening, but we have to find ways of coping that won't break the bank and can be planned out."
The risk scoring system uses climate modeling data and outlines specific procedures to help engineers design a particular structure to withstand current and future climatic conditions. That could mean a structural change, like building a higher bridge or using a bigger pipe, or adjusting an operational procedure, like servicing the system more frequently.
Toronto learned a difficult lesson in 2005 during a severe summer storm that caused 647 million Canadian dollars ($657 million) in damage. Heavy rains overwhelmed a culvert and washed out a portion of Finch Avenue, a major artery north of Toronto's downtown core.
Capano said his office used the PIEVC tool to figure out how to rebuild the culvert with more resilience, which cost CA$4 million. He also used it to help mitigate future failures at two other water drainage systems. Toronto is also using the tool to assess vulnerabilities and engineering solutions at a community housing unit and at the Toronto Pearson International Airport.
Places in Costa Rica and Honduras have used the PIEVC tool, too.
It costs about $100,000 to run the PIEVC risk program, depending on the size of the infrastructure project. The city of Toronto paid $120,000 to evaluate its three culverts. But it's likely to pay itself off quickly in avoided costs, Lapp said.
"It's a small price to pay to make a multimillion-dollar facility able to handle the future climate," he said. "It's almost like you pay me now or you pay me later. Pay a little now, you won't have to pay me later."