Roads, railroads and utilities are at risk during record high temperatures. Even buildings, many of which lack air conditioning, bring little relief, putting people’s health at risk. University experts address the scorch that is wreaking havoc across the region, particularly in the UK.
Temperatures cooled briefly on Wednesday. But still, many of the UK’s railway lines – already rocked by warped tracks, fires and downed overhead lines – weren’t working, forcing University of Miami researcher Sharan Majumdar to change his plans for two-day trip to England, where he is visiting the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts to conduct hurricane research.
Workers at Network Rail, which runs rail infrastructure in England, Scotland and Wales, have painted ‘hotspot’ sections of train tracks white, so they absorb less heat, in the hope to prevent further buckling under intense heat.
“But other transportation systems were also affected by the hot weather – melted roads and airport runways that weren’t designed for temperatures in the 100s,” Majumdar said, alluding to the fact that in Stockport, England, a busy thoroughfare has turned into sticky, black goo.
But the record-breaking heatwave hitting Europe isn’t just impacting how people get around. It also affects other critical infrastructure, causing government and private sector officials to take unprecedented action to try to avert catastrophic failures. Power plants, for example, operate at lower levels and gas pipelines limit the flow of gas.
However, seeking cooler temperatures inside buildings brought little relief.
“Here in the UK, the main priority of property developers is to protect their occupants from the cold during the winter. Very little attention is paid to summer,” explained Majumdar, professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science, who is also co-director of the new Climate Resilience Academy.
He noted a 2008 report by London-based market research firm Mintel which found that only 0.5%, or 1 in 200, of homes in the UK have air conditioning.
“Most businesses and even hospitals don’t have air conditioning either,” he pointed out. “It is widely quoted that air conditioning is not good for the environment and will only be needed for a few days a year. To compound the impacts, many residential buildings have large windows and glass doors to let in light,” he added. “During the peak of the heat wave, most people, including my mother and I, stayed indoors and were planning to sit and sleep near portable desk fans, stay hydrated, have towels nearby and keep windows and curtains closed all day.
According to Ben Kirtman, professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School and director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies.
“The cut-off low, subtropical North Atlantic High (NASH) and Saharan air are all working together on this heat wave,” Kirtman said, noting that the NASH, also known as the high of the Azores, and the Saharan winds are intimately linked. “Saharan airflow is affected when NASH intensifies or falters,” he explained. “Normally the heat records are broken by a few tenths of a degree, but for this heat wave the records are broken by a few degrees. It’s absolutely amazing.
The Rosenstiel School’s component of the multi-institutional long-range forecasting project known as the Subseasonal Experiment, or SubX, that Kirtman developed, worked remarkably well for predicting heat waves weeks in advance. , he admitted.
Climate change, according to Kirtman, has dramatically increased the chance and magnitude of intense heat waves, a sentiment Majumdar echoed.
“The overwhelming consensus in the UK is that climate change is the main driver of recent hot, dry summers with record high temperatures,” he said. “However, despite the consensus, little has been done in recent years to make the UK’s buildings, transport infrastructure, economy and society more resilient to these impacts.”
Whatever the future holds, the scorching heatwave is currently wreaking havoc on Europe’s infrastructure, turning some roads into liquid surfaces and putting railways at risk.
“Some asphalt surfaces can become soft and greasy at high temperatures,” said Ali Ghahremaninezhad, an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the College of Engineering. “Modified materials have emerged to improve the heat resistance of asphalt surfaces in newly constructed pavements. But some old asphalt surfaces were built with old materials and as such are sensitive to extreme heat.
Ghahremaninezhad, which develops self-healing concrete, said such a strategy could be used to help prevent road melting in the UK. “Self-healing methodologies, including self-healing asphalt and concrete, can be used to mitigate cracking in structures and pavements. And the problem of melting could be avoided by using stage-modified materials. road construction,” he said.
Meanwhile, the brutal heat wave in Europe has led to an increase in energy demand, according to Nurcin Celik, an associate professor of industrial engineering and an expert in microgrids and distributed sustainable energy sources.
“This spike in power demand may have been anticipated by European utility companies, and they either reserved power for such an event or brought additional generation capacity online to meet the excess demand,” she said. “In the best-case scenario, the heatwave would have minimal effect on consumers, as additional supply is readily available, such as having a savings account for energy. Otherwise, this spike can lead to scattered brownouts when consumer loads are disconnected to maintain grid stability.
But if demand persists without energy reserves or additional generation capacity, utility companies can either disconnect more consumers or apply surge charges for the cost of energy supply beyond the rated capacity of the network, according to Joshua Darville, a Ph.D. candidate in industrial engineering. “The price of energy to consumers is a function of several factors, including high demand with low supply and preventing long-term damage from grid overload,” he said.
The scorching conditions can only worsen in the future, Majumdar warned. He drew attention to the fact that Stephen Belcher, chief scientist of the Met Office, the UK’s national weather service, said that in a very high emissions scenario, the UK could see temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius (about 104 degrees Fahrenheit) as often as every three years by the end of the century.
“A lot of work clearly needs to be done,” Majumdar said.