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Do engineers know enough about current and future trends in climate change?

08 November 2017
Is it time for infrastructure professionals to incorporate predictions of actual climate change into their work – however unwelcome that may be?
Do engineers know enough about current and future trends in climate change?

Civil engineers are in danger of using outdated codes of practice that were based on research and statistical data for historic conditions.

Such codes are unlikely to provide data for adequately resilient design for current projects – never mind for infrastructure required to last 40 or even 120 years.

Building knowledge on climate change

Research shows that most engineers acknowledge that nearly all codes need major revisions to cater for climate change. ICE’s journal Forensic Engineering has therefore started to build up a series of themed issues (2015 and 2017) with briefings and papers that analyse the latest changes or rates of change in measurable climate data and engineer’s perceptions. Technical papers then indicate aspects of the civil engineering’s role for resilient infrastructure.

As might be expected, the latest climate change reports and predictions are very different from the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published in 2013 and 2014.

These reports are still widely used as a benchmark even though the science would be based on data that could now be (in 2017) five years out of date.

Moreover, probabilities used by scientists for ‘unlikely’ scenario and ‘worst case’ conditions are much less onerous than those used in normal engineering standards. Civil engineers should be basing their designs on scientific data rather than what society hopes might be adequate.

As climate science is a constantly evolving field civil engineers need to base their designs on the latest reasonable predictions. As shown by unprecedented, yet predicted, extreme weather events, designs based on old data such as previous paths of hurricanes could place civil engineers at a serious disadvantage.

Answering questions about recent climate debates

The first questions that clients may ask involve:

  • Do we really need to prepare for increased global temperatures at all?
  • Is there evidence that increases in global temperature changes have actually stopped?

The paper ‘Global surface temperature records: an update’ succinctly answers these questions with alarming new data.

Any apparent hiatus in temperature increase was only temporary. Global temperatures have recently shot up and are at levels far beyond general expectations.

Secondly, clients need information about how high global temperatures are likely to increase during the whole lifetime of any given project. ‘Future climate projections allow engineering planning’ shows the temperature is likely to increase by 5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

Thirdly, clients may wish to know when the planet will be locked into major irreversible change. ‘Updates on Arctic ocean ice graphs for 2016-17’ indicate very short timescales based on the publicly available record of Arctic sea ice. This indicates that summer Arctic sea ice will be gone forever in the early 2020s.

The absence of the ‘cooling reflective ice hat’ on the Arctic’s 24 hours of sun will remove the last hope that climate change will not affect us.

4 degrees of warming by 2040

In ‘Should engineers be allowing for a potential 4°C rise by 2040 and how?’’, Parry argues that civil engineers can no longer ignore the evidence that climate change is more drastic and faster than predicted. He suggests that civil engineers need to prepare for 4 degrees of warming by 2040.

These papers from ICE’s themed Forensic engineering journal show the compelling need for engineers to be kept informed of current and predicted changes in the climate. Such forensic information is needed to allow for resilient design but also to guard against liability associated with use of outdated codes of practice.