ABS and climate change's impact on utilities

ABS Group warns of escalating climate change impacts on critical infrastructure, including energy
The impact of climate change on critical infrastructure security should change how operators look at safeguarding critical infrastructure, ABS Group says

As highlighted by ABS Group, increasing extreme weather events are bringing with them heavier loads than the existing infrastructure was originally designed for. Facility operators are facing a growing requirement to review and re-assess the wider risks associated with climate change and the increased hazards it represents. Requirements to adapt and reconsider appropriate management of safety margins mean that existing hazard profiles will need to be reassessed and new hazards identified and reviewed. Plant safety will need to be increasingly improved, maintained, and continually monitored as we move forward.

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Here, the group warns of escalating climate change impacts on critical infrastructure, including energy, and how its consequences like changing climate and more intense extreme weather events pose risks to the infrastructure's safety and efficiency.

Mitigating the increased risk of climate change impact on the UK and Europe’s critical infrastructure 

In its March 2023 report, the UK’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that the UK will face increasingly intense extreme weather events leading to adverse impacts on nature and people. 

The research points to the growing prospect that, as with other areas globally, climate change is resulting in the UK’s extreme weather events becoming more extreme. Winds are becoming stronger and rains are getting heavier, resulting in more frequent flash flooding events. In addition, future predictions show more frequent and higher intensity storms with an increased risk of coastal flooding due to rising sea levels. 

While climate change is not a new phenomenon — the world’s climate has been changing since the dawn of time — what is new, and even alarming, is the rate of change and the new challenges it is bringing to critical infrastructure, including energy, transport, water, waste, and digital communication assets.

Climate change impact

A recent study by the Met Office showed that during rainfall events in the UK, the intensity of downpours may increase by 5 to 15% per degree of regional warming, meaning a greater intensity of rainfall in excess of 20mm/hour. 

Excess rainfall induces a greater likelihood of both fluvial and pluvial flooding as existing mitigation measures — building and surface water drainage systems and rivers — become rapidly overwhelmed. An example of an intense rainfall event with 20mm/hr occurred in London in July 2021, when 40mm of rain fell over three hours at Kew Gardens, leading to flash flooding which inundated the London underground system and other critical infrastructure.

The greatest changes in rainfall intensity for the UK are predicted to occur in the northwest of England and across Scotland, with future extreme rainfall events almost 10 times more frequent in Northwest Scotland by 2080 compared to the 1980s. In the south of England, the value is closer to three times more frequent. 

Of course, climate change effects are not exclusive to the UK. For example, during 2021 serious flooding in central Europe resulted in more than 200 fatalities and considerable damage to infrastructure, with estimated costs for Germany alone of around €4.5billion to €5.5bn (US$4.9bn to US$6.bn).

During 2022, many countries in Europe experienced a summer marred by extreme heat and drought conditions, immediately followed by severe thunderstorms. For the UK, the maximum recorded temperature rose above 40°C for the first time, whilst the climatic conditions saw wildfires in Europe burn two and a half times more area than the annual average over the last 15 years.

In 2023, the North Italian region of Emilia-Romagna experienced severe flooding following three separate heavy rainfall events within the month of May. The National Centers for Environmental Information (NOAA) identified that every month of 2022 ranked among the ten warmest recorded for that month, and that the 10 warmest years within the historical records have all occurred since 2010. These high temperatures brought heatwaves and wildfires to some countries, whilst simultaneously bringing deluges and heavy rain episodes to others. 

Looking ahead to 2050, the independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) anticipates that the UK will experience warmer and wetter winters, drier and hotter summers and continued rises in sea levels. It is projected that by 2050, approximately a third of England’s coastline will be under pressure from flood risks. These findings mirror those of UK Climate Projections (UKCP18), which identifies a trend towards a greater probability of more rainfall in the winter with less rainfall in the summer. For both temperature and rainfall, the changes are much larger if greenhouse gas emissions are assumed to continue to increase uncontrolled.

The potential impact of climate change on critical infrastructure security, both today and into the future, should change the way operators look at safeguarding critical infrastructure. Risk levels are ramping up, especially where the ageing infrastructure of current sites is concerned. The speed of change is already causing existing design review periods to be reconsidered.

Increasing extreme weather events are bringing with them heavier loads than the existing — and in some cases, ageing — infrastructure was originally designed for. Facility operators are facing a growing requirement to review and re-assess the wider risks associated with climate change and the increased hazards it represents. Requirements to adapt and reconsider appropriate management of safety margins mean that existing hazard profiles will need to be reassessed and new hazards identified and reviewed. Plant safety will need to be increasingly improved, maintained, and continually monitored as we move forward.

Climate change risks to facilities

A key question regarding existing critical infrastructure is whether you should update and strengthen or else build completely new infrastructure. Previously, historical weather events have been used as indicators of the potential loads that critical infrastructure may experience, however, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that these indicators will provide evidence of what could be expected. Given the likelihood of the increased frequency of such events, it is becoming ever-more difficult to argue against re-invigorating investment in existing infrastructure.

ABS Group advises that organisations should look with fresh eyes from a risk assessment perspective when it comes to the consideration of climate change impacts. In particular, the impact of rainfall, wind and rising sea levels.

A ‘wait and see approach’ is no longer an option, and operators should take the view that just because an extreme event has not yet happened, it does not mean it cannot or will not occur in the future.

Heavy rainfall can drive the risk of flash flooding where the existing infrastructure is unable to shed the increased water volumes from a facility. This in turn can affect drainage from roofs leading to increased live loads, potentially in areas not designed to withstand this loading.

Importance of undertaking a multi-hazard assessment of infrastructure

When considering the impacts of climate change, it is critical to look at infrastructure risks from a multi-hazard perspective. Rarely is there a single event. It is far more common for several weather events to combine, such as high winds accompanied by heavy rainstorms. This combination could lead to building damage, flooding and wider associated risks.

Mitigating and managing risk

Experience and on-site observations have shown that often a facility or enterprise that has a degree of flood protection in place will fail to ensure the ongoing effectiveness of that protection. Failures are typically attributed to wholesale failure to maintain protective embankments or concrete protection walls through to more localised failures in the implementation of building flood protection. A typical example is the maintenance of weep holes from a facility to the surroundings within protective barriers. Without adequate maintenance and regular inspection, the valves fill with debris or seize, becoming effectively useless in preventing the ingress of external flood water into the facility grounds.

ABS Group regularly conducts facility risk audits and frequently identifies issues that can undermine existing flood protection measures. It is often the issues that have a perceived small impact that are the most overlooked, but individually or cumulatively these imperfections in the flood prevention plan have the potential to fundamentally impact the afforded protection.

Taking steps to reassess risk

Facilities grow and change over time. Even if flood protection is incorporated into the original design, the facility owner/operator should assure themselves that the installed systems are suitable, adequately maintained, and operable when required.

When reassessing risk, it is advisable to plan for a ‘worst-case scenario’. 

Just because a severe weather event has not already happened, it does not mean it cannot or will not occur in the future and the worst-case scenario should be considered and planned for.

By planning for the worst-case scenario, consideration is given to the potential of an extreme event or series of extreme events impacting the facility. All practicable permutations of events, no matter how incredible or unlikely, should be considered. Credible events should then be assessed for the potential risks associated with primary, multiple and consequential secondary risks.

Current condition and future use changes

When undertaking a flood prevention assessment, consideration should be given to the current condition of the building or equipment and any planned future changes. Has anything deteriorated in the years since the last safety review? Are there signs of ageing, damage, or have any modifications been undertaken that could potentially have an impact when considering additional Climate Change loads and the prospect of increased and heavier extreme weather episodes?

Any assessment to be undertaken should review current structural standards against modern standard requirements — including consideration of the Operational Delivery Guide (ODG) for facilities operating under the COMAH Regulations — whilst also addressing and assessing any potential future use changes via physical assessment, finite element analysis or another route.

Conclusion

The evidence is clear that the effects of climate change on national infrastructures are already significant and are likely to worsen substantially under all reasonable climate change scenarios. 

Flooding is the most frequent and impactful natural hazard within the UK and Europe, and this risk is only set to increase. Identifying the present-day flood risk and future flood risk is essential for a facility to begin the process of flood risk management. 

Any flood risk and vulnerability assessment undertaken should be thorough and well documented, along with well written and robust flood management plans. It is recommended that emergency procedures for natural hazard risks are reviewed and tested, like annual mandated fire evacuations, to help ensure that the plans remain effective through the lifecycle of the facility.

With climate change effects, flood systems that are in place today may no longer be fit for purpose in 20 or 30-years’ time, so the periodic review of the flood management of a facility is essential to help ensure that the levels of protection are maintained. 

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