Discussing current issues in engineering
Reeling from yet another natural disaster of catastrophic proportions, the US looks to the challenges in the South with exhaustion, relief, sadness, hope, and perseverance. The human condition, however adverse to change we think we are, has an uncanny ability to recover, adapt, and thrive time and time again. Even so, this dynamically precarious state of perceived reliability and safety provided by our infrastructure is an ever-thinning veil of comfort.
Perhaps, the sheer magnitude of what we face with respect to climate change is simply not able to be fully realized. Maybe the trust of the American people in antiquated infrastructure systems is too great. Although, positively, it may be something else entirely…
Throughout the previous decade, the world has watched history unfold as disasters such as Superstorm Sandy (2012), a once-every-500-year pluvial event in Michigan (2014), hurricanes Harvey (2017) and Michael (2018), a record-breaking 5 major storms in the Gulf (2020), and now the wrath of Ida (2021), ravage the terrain. The detrimental intensity of these natural upheavals consistently pushes the boundaries of what our society can withstand.
Currently, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift as epically proportionate as 21st century superstorms. Modifications in behaviors, mindset, and industrial progress are barreling through the engineering sector in the form of resilience engineering. Resilience, defined as “the ability to spring back into shape”, is an American ideal permeating to our culture’s core. New to the scene, resilience engineering is taking that nucleic ethos and applying it to design, maintenance, and restoration objectives for buildings, infrastructure, and our communities. The image of a single flower growing out of a sidewalk crack should no longer be the poster image conjured in our minds. Instead, picture a punching bag that always rights and centers itself no matter the blow.
As Ida’s destruction is fresh in our forethought it’s only natural to envision coastal resilience as the primary pinch point of infrastructure durability. However, the modern pressures on engineering cannot pigeonhole the sect into narrowly focusing on a single element of the changing climate and landscape. Resilience engineering works to address evolving threats to infrastructure, changing environmental thresholds resulting in extreme weather events, and disrupted timelines for necessary improvements regardless of size.
Crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries has become a foundational tool for civil and environmental engineers, and reliance on cooperative approaches will only increase. Tandem planning efforts for land use, environmental considerations, social and equity factors together inform infrastructure design and systems within resilience engineering.
Therefore, the not-so-streamline path of progress has been diverted, requiring a fresh focus on the first principles of the new paradigm. The foundation of today’s engineering has been trained to balance loads versus capacities and evaluate cost-benefit optimization. Through resilient design, engineers will begin to fill the cracks by; integrating physical and social design considerations, quantifying, and incorporating uncertainty, use system-level approach to plan for infrastructure diversity and redundancy, and explicitly defining adaptive options within design decisions.
There to meet the needs of the community, civil and environmental engineers can adapt to replace traditional standards-based approaches with risk informed project plans, providing tangible technical solutions for sustainable, resilient progress.
It may seem, at times, that we have strayed too far, and the wobble has turned in to a topple, and the complexity of system inter-dependencies, regulatory constraints, the evolving nature of hazards, the limitations of conventional engineering solutions, and the humbling effort required to work across disciplines is just too heavy a burden to embrace. However, we cannot stagnate. It is clear the data of the 20th century can no longer inform the resilience planning of the future.
The inadvertently short-sighted planning, development and disaster policy of the U.S. is now barely operating as a broken crutch bowing under the atmospheric pressure of climate change, population growth, and technological acceleration. This is an advantage for engineers though. The ability to leverage risk informed approaches in order to mitigate flooding and reduce hurricane or other natural disaster impacts further fuels the resilience paradigm shift, emphasizing recovery instead of loss reduction.
But how is resilience measured?
The first study defining the components of resilience was the Resilience Measurement Index. However, it largely missed the mark by failing to address ability of engineered systems to adapt. But, like humans, adaptability needs to be built into the code, the structural DNA so to speak, of the policies, ordinances, regulations, and expectations of foundational infrastructure resilience planning across community scales. Statistical assessments for measuring the level of resilience such as the Critical Infrastructure Elements Resilience Assessment (CIERA) and the HAZUS Resiliency Evaluation are only two great places to start incorporating into planning methodologies.
Resilience engineering is a cyclic process with a need for assessment and reassessment of the systems throughout their life. Quantification of resilience has to divert focus from the sticker shock of the damage and look to future cost saving. Mutating building codes, a much less taboo practice than the typical sense of the work, could ubiquitously create a new “hazard landscape”. Increased adoption and enforcement of the new expressions of civil and environmental engineering DNA will be the rebuilding blocks of natural disaster recovery.
Achieving dynamic stability through resilience planning is not without significant challenges. The geographic size and scope of modern infrastructure, interdependencies between communities, bureaucratic corruption, conflicting regulations, and cascading failures resulting from natural disasters all hinder the resilience engineering movement. However, responsible engineering can’t be accomplished in isolation, nor should it be attempted. Accepting failures within systems, the inability of infrastructure to offer complete protection from disaster, and the inevitability that change is going to happen, will foster the advancement in recognition of our need for resiliency and cognition of the path forward. As engineers, we must ask ourselves from the beginning how we can ameliorate the infrastructure and communities we are a part of by taking a leadership role within the paradigm shift. With this resilient mindset, civil and environmental engineers are perfectly poised to become the “true protagonists” of the rejuvenation of United States urban infrastructure, and stewards of the cities as we all head into the eye of the storm.
Baecher, Gregory, et al. “Resiliently Engineered Flood and Hurricane Infrastructure: Principles to Guide the next Generation of Engineers.” National Academy of Engineering, The Bridge, 1 July 2019, https://www.nae.edu/212181/Resiliently-Engineered-Flood-and-Hurricane-Infrastructure-Principles-to-Guide-the-Next-Generation-of-Engineers
Lu, Xinzheng, et al. "Quantification of disaster resilience in civil engineering: A review." Journal of Safety Science and Resilience 1.1 (2020): 19-30.
Rehak, David, et al. "Complex approach to assessing resilience of critical infrastructure elements." International journal of critical infrastructure protection 25 (2019): 125-138.
“Resilience | Definition of Resilience by Lexico.” Lexico Dictionaries | English, 2019, www.lexico.com/en/definition/resilience.
Water scarcity in the American West has historically been a contentious issue. In order to address growing water demands throughout a region with unpredictable precipitation, pressure was put on the federal government to take responsibility for storage and irrigation projects. The first half of the 1900’s saw major changes in water resource availability as the Reclamation Act of 1902 was passed by Congress. Within the Department of Interior, the United States Bureau of Reclamation, initially was created to study projects in water development within western states containing federal lands.
The concept of these water development projects was to “reclaim” the drought ridden lands to explicitly alleviate the burden of water shortages and amplify accessibility for human and agricultural use. The Colorado River, a focal point in the American West, has held a mystical and wild air for centuries. Subject to both erratic behavior and seasonal, predictable, cyclical periods of drought and flooding, the river is made up of a vast network of tributaries. Throughout the complex web of water are a number of control mechanisms primarily in the form of dams (i.e. The Hoover Dam). These massive feats of engineering efforts to provide water security were successful, instigating a shift from construction to operation and maintenance.
Fast forward to 2021, and we are facing climate crisis and unprecedented resource challenges. Although the current and revised mission of Reclamation is to "manage, develop, and protect water and related resources in an environmentally and economically sound manner in the interest of the American public", it was originally stated by Reclamation that “the arid West essentially has been reclaimed. The major rivers have been harnessed and facilities are in place or are being completed to meet the most pressing current water demands and those of the immediate future."
Spanning 7 states almost 250,000 square miles, the Colorado River and surrounding watershed supports the livelihoods of nearly 40 million Americans. Facing incredible insistence, Reclamation solved the immediate water issues in the beginning of the 20th century, however it’s shortsighted and anthropocentric goals were unsustainable for the water resources.
Now these reservoirs that at one time saved the West are now fast deteriorating to such low levels the massive hydroelectric power generators in dams are unable to spin. Massive water restrictions on the horizon, it is the latest undertaking of modern engineering to again provide savior to the desperate state of the American West’s water resources.
Stakeholders are tasked with fulfilling the social planning goals that were inadvertently overlooked from Reclamation’s initial mission. Retrofitting the awe-inspiring architecture along the Colorado River is not entirely feasible, however, the structured creativity of engineering opens new solution avenues.
Contingency plans are now common documents for municipalities, their governing bodies, and stakeholders. Offering an opportunity to explore and expand demand management techniques, drought contingency plans suggest collaborative efforts to enhance mechanisms controlling water resource growth planning, and address water needs across multiple regions. Among these suggestions are updating municipal development codes with water-smart parameters, expanding water market transactions to facilitate increased engagement between municipalities, and establishing an atlas of collaborative frameworks for environmental organizations, engineers, and other shareholders.
The Water SMART Program is also one of the latest mitigation efforts put forth by Reclamation. The Program combines funding for subprograms aimed at tackling improvement projects related to water resources. Water recycling and reuse projects are at the top of the funding list through the Program. Participants are also able to apply for grants to make efficiency improvements to water and energy infrastructure. Additional consideration is given to those applying with projects addressing improvements to water delivery systems. For example, engineering projects include improving canal lining and piping to reduce seepage loss, installing advanced metering systems, updating and automating water gates where necessary, implementing supervisory control and data acquisition systems to improve water management, and introducing new residential water meters. Through collaborative, sustainable planning, and responsible engineering , water reliability can be recaptured in the American West.
Booth, M. (2021, July 13). The Colorado river is drying up faster than federal officials can keep track. Mandatory water cuts are looming. The Colorado Sun.
Soeth, P. (2021, March 17). Projects throughout the Western United States receive $42.4 million in grants from Reclamation to conserve and use water more efficiently. News & Multimedia. https://www.usbr.gov/newsroom/#/news-release/3794.
Soeth, P. (2021, August 5). Reclamation invests in grants to increase water sustainability in the West. News & Media. https://www.usbr.gov/newsroom/#/news-release/3794.
Summitt, A. (2013). Conquering the Wild Colorado: The River before 1945. In Contested Waters: An Environmental History of the Colorado River (pp. 3-30). Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt4cgjp3.5
Tuser, C. (2021, August 18). Bureau of Reclamation Announces FIRST-EVER water shortage in Lake MEAD, Colorado River. Water & Wastes Digest. https://www.wwdmag.com/one-water/bureau-reclamation-announces-first-ever-water-shortage-lake-mead-colorado-river.
U.S. Congressional Research Service. Bureau of Reclamation: FY2021 Appropriations (F11465; Jan. 8, 2021) ,by Unknown. Text pdf: https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF11465.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is a scientific government agency spanning the disciplines of geography, geology, biology, and hydrology. Engineers at the University of Missouri (UM) recently partnered with USGS to assess an environmental threat at the intersection of the organization’s biological and hydrological interests: the spread of invasive carp throughout American river basins.
Four species of invasive carp—grass, bighead, silver, and black—constitute researchers’ target population. In the early 1960s, institutions like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service imported grass carp to fish farming stations as an experimental control for unwanted aquatic weed growth in wastewater, aquiculture, and retention ponds. By the next decade, intentional and accidental releases had enabled grass carp to enter open water systems and spread to more than 16 states. In subsequent years, bighead, silver, and black carp experienced similar patterns of importation and expansion into open waters.
Since the early 2000s, institutions and organizations across the country have recognized and sought to slow the spread of invasive carp. The tolerance, fecundity, size, and appetite of these species enable their rapid spread throughout American waterways. As carp spread, they jeopardize the survival of competing native plant and animal species. Commercial and local fishing operations face economic risks when habitats are overtaken by invasive fish.
The carp not only threaten water and economic ecosystems but also create safety hazards in recreational environments. Bighead and silver carp possess a powerful startle reflex that enables them to jump up to 10 feet above water when frightened. Boaters in bighead and silver carp habitats have reported injuries as a result of collisions with fish.
The partnership between USGS and UM engineers seeks to provide scientists with knowledge of invasive carp spawning practices and egg drift patterns. “We want to be able to control these fish,” says Duane Chapman, the team’s supervisory research fish biologist from USGS’s Columbia Environmental Research Center. Chapman is confident that the expertise of Binbin Wang, UM Assistant Professor of civil and environmental engineering and the university’s project representative, will enable improved forecasts of where carp live.
Wang specializes in the physics of environmental flows. He and his fellow researchers will further develop his innovative 3-dimensional turbulence modeling tools in order to locate possible invasive carp spawning areas in river habitats. Wang’s modeling generates environmental flows like river currents as three-dimensional structures, rather than traditional, oversimplified two-dimensional models that often fall short of supplying useful information for large and turbulent rivers.
The team hopes that they can use information derived from Wang’s new model to anticipate spawning locations and possibly create structures that will prevent the hatching of invasive carp, thereby providing balance to an overtaxed ecosystem.
Click here to learn more about the partnership between the United States Geological Survey and the University of Missouri. To learn more about invasive carp in American waterways, click here.
As summer enters full swing throughout the United States—bringing with it record-setting heat waves, threats of power outage, and cases of heat-related illness—scientists, engineers, and urban planners are considering urban surface alternatives that might reduce the effects of heat pollution in cities.
Many cities around the world record average temperatures between 2 and 4°C warmer than neighboring rural areas. This phenomenon, known as the Urban Heat Island effect, occurs because typical urban surfaces (like pavement) absorb more heat than natural surfaces (like grass) which often characterize rural regions.
For the individuals who live in urban centers, stakes are high (and climbing higher). From 2004 to 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded an annual average of 702 heat-related deaths in the United States. As global warming increases the likelihood of extreme weather events like heat waves, the need for effective remediation against heat pollution grows. Otherwise, we could see cities throughout the world become unlivable for part or all of the year.
In a paper recently published by the journal Nature Communications, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering model the effects of reflective surface applications on conventional urban surfaces in a neighborhood. Coauthors Sushobhan Sen and Lev Khazanovich used Computational Fluid Dynamics to model air currents in a prototypical neighborhood as it was subjected to alternate spatial distributions of reflective surfaces. Their research yields promising insights that can be used to address urban heat pollution.
The team found that widespread application of reflective surfaces reduced air temperatures throughout the simulated neighborhood by up to 1.9°C, but this came with a significant investment. Alternate models revealed that temperature reductions as great as 1.1°C could be generated by adding reflective materials to 50% of existing surfaces, rather than 100%.
In cases where researchers located reflective surfaces upstream from conventional surfaces, cooler air currents penetrated the downstream homes in addition to upstream homes. Because reflective surfaces are cooler than conventional surfaces, dominant wind cools as it passes through high reflectance areas and continues to travel downstream, cooling the rest of the city at a reduced cost.
Sen notes that strategic placement of reflective surfaces is key. The effectiveness of high reflectance surfaces declines when they are placed downstream of or parallel to the dominant wind direction—less mixing of air restricts cooling to the part of the neighborhood with reflective surfaces. In order to maximize the effectiveness of minimal resources, engineers and urban developers must evaluate both spatial distribution of reflective surfaces and dominant wind streams throughout neighborhoods. In doing so, they enable a substantial decline in city temperatures with half the material investment required of total surface application.
Click here to read Sen and Khazanovich’s work in the journal, Nature Communications. To learn more about heat-related deaths in the United States, click here.
Concrete has dominated the modern construction industry since the start of its commercial manufacturing in the nineteenth century. Asphalt concrete, a specific variety of concrete used for paving and typically referred to as “asphalt,” gained popularity during this same period. As the foremost option for road construction, asphalt’s popularity rose in conjunction with the commercial automobile industry. Today, concrete is the most commonly used building material in the world, and second only to water as the world’s most widely used substance.
Despite worldwide popularity, concrete and asphalt structures can fall short of their expected lifespans. Modern concrete and asphalt structures are known to deteriorate far faster than their historical counterparts. Deterioration takes many forms: cracks, breakdown into fine particles, interior hollowing, and separation into layers. All forms of deterioration threaten the integrity and safety of structures, translating into decreased lifespans and increased maintenance or replacement costs.
When compared to the endurance of historical concrete, widely studied processes like aggregate expansion, chemical damage, and rebar corrosion (in reinforced structures) present only a partial picture of deterioration root causes for modern concrete structures and asphalt pavements. A paper recently published by the journal PLOS ONE sheds light on one significant additional cause of deterioration.
The paper authors—a team of researchers drawn from six diverse institutional environments (medicine, manufacturing, higher education, and consulting)—began their inquiries with the unexplained odor that emanates from commercial cement when mixed with water. The researchers hypothesized that the odor derived from organic matter. From there, they examined the presence of organic matter in relation to concrete deterioration.
Currently, scientists and inspectors determine deterioration rates through surface crack measurements and a chemical test. This team of researchers used a micro focus CT scanner, like those used in medical settings, to develop cross-sectional images of asphalt and concrete samples. The samples originated from a variety of geographical locations and time periods where unexplained asphalt and concrete damage had occurred. After procurement, researchers exposed the samples to test conditions reproduced from moisture permeation levels calculated in the field. This permeation process enabled the team to accurately represent the real-world relative humidity of summer.
Researchers determined that asphalt and concrete samples contained organic molecules from a variety of sources: phthalates, surfactants, windshield washer fluids, and diesel exhaust particulates. Comparisons between CT scans showed that phthalates, chemicals used to increase the durability of plastics, had the most significant effect on concrete and asphalt deterioration. For the first time, researchers demonstrated that organic matter levels, whether introduced during the production process or real-world exposure, were indicators for the deterioration present in modern concrete and asphalt.
The researchers believe that their findings will contribute to the development of enduring concrete and asphalt materials and structures. To read more about the study and findings, click here.
Engineers use time-tested, evidence-based physical laws to determine how materials will behave in a particular situation. With knowledge of a material’s structural makeup, engineers can calculate the integrity of a design—built or theoretical—to ensure that structures fulfill the functions required of them.
The design innovations of previous decades have led to a rise in the use of composite materials throughout the engineering field. Composite products like concrete, plywood, and fiberglass confront consumers everyday as mainstays of modern design. Composite materials can offer expanded functionalities like increased strength or lightness as compared to their constituent materials. But as the complexity of material resources increases, so too does the complexity of equations required to calculate stresses and strains. Even with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), up until now, engineers have been forced to code stress and strain equations into networks before AI can generate simulations and solutions.
New research published by Zhenze Yang, Chi-Hua Yu, and Markus Buehler of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reveals a process that can calculate the properties of a material through the use of machine learning and computer vision, rather than the input of differential equations (as is presently required).
Researchers selected a machine learning framework known as a Generative Adversarial Neural Network as the foundation of their AI model. In order to train the network, the team paired images depicting the internal microstructures of various materials under stress with color-coded images of the materials’ stress and strain values. After exposure to thousands of paired images, the network learned to calculate stresses based on the geometry of a material’s structural makeup.
Through extensive testing and AI exposure to additional scenarios, researchers also determined that their network could capture “singularities,” such as developing cracks in concrete, and accurately simulate the force and field changes resulting from such events. Overall, the research reveals a system capable of generating stress and strain calculations with less time, resources, and manpower than any other method known to the field of engineering.
Yang, Yu, and Buehler predict that their approach will lead to faster progressions through the engineering design process. Professionals like architects and materials inspectors will benefit from a tool capable of calculating material integrity with nothing more than a snapshot. In addition, nonexperts will be able to gather materials calculations for small scale and pet projects alike, because a fully trained version of the researchers’ network runs on computers with consumer-grade CPUs (central processing units).
To view Yang, Yu, and Buehler’s recent publication in the journal Science Advances, click here.
Wind accounts for the highest percentage of renewable energy generation in the United States. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 8.4% of all electricity produced in the U.S. is derived from wind energy. In 2020, wind accounted for 43% of renewables-based electricity generation—5% more than hydropower and more than ten times the combined electricity yields of biomass, solar, and geothermal energy.
Electricity-generating wind turbines have occupied scattered spaces in the U.S. electricity landscape since their initial conception in the late nineteenth century. When oil shortages in the 1970s forced a reevaluation of the nation’s energy environment, federally funded research and development brought wind turbines into the mainstream.
Despite more than a century of use, the design of electricity-generating wind turbines has remained relatively unchanged. Now, Spain-based tech startup Vortex Bladeless is refreshing the traditional means of wind energy generation with a wind machine that forgoes the defining characteristics of a turbine.
Vortex’s wind machine is a modular, on-site wind energy generator without blades or rotating parts. The machine is comprised of a cylindrical body surrounding a central support that is anchored to the ground. Its ability to generate energy relies on a principle of fluid dynamics called called vortex shedding.
Vortex shedding occurs when fluids (like water or air) flow past a blunt body, creating alternating vortices at the back of the body that detach to form a “vortex street.” When wind passes through the blunt body, the cylinder oscillates toward the alternating low-pressure vortices and subsequently triggers a coil-and-magnet alternator system attached to the central support. Through this process, wind energy becomes mechanical energy becomes electrical energy. In action, the vortex machine resembles one prong of a struck tuning fork rather than the pinwheel shape of a turbine.
Vortex Bladeless launched initial manufacturing with a first series of Vortex Nano devices measuring in at 85 centimeters tall. The company has plans to manufacture generators in a variety of sizes in order to meet site-specific needs. Next on the list is the Vortex Tacoma: a 2.75-meter-tall generator weighing less than 15 kilograms with the capacity to generate 100w. Product features like variable sizing, a light weight, and a low center of gravity hold promise for the wind machine’s ability to occupy a variety of settings, whether rural hilltops or skyscraper railings.
Click here to read more about electricity generation in the United States. For more on the Vortex Bladeless wind machine, click here.
The Navajo Nation retains the largest land area of any indigenous tribe in the United States. Navajo land spans 27,000 square miles—an area larger than West Virginia—and occupies territory in three states: Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. More than 173,000 of the 298,000 enrolled Navajo members live on Navajo Nation soil.
According to the Indian Health Service (IHS) and the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, an estimated twenty to thirty percent of the Nation’s residents do not have access to piped water in their homes. Most occupants of homes without piped water rely on hauled water. In some cases, occupants may rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has rocked the Navajo Nation with 30,350 cases to date, exacerbated preexisting strains placed on Navajo communities through insufficient and unreliable water access. To combat these deficits, advocates from a variety of sectors—Navajo Nation and federal officials, nonprofits, universities, utility providers—united to form the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Water Access Coordination Group (WACG) which aims to increase tribal homes’ access to safe, quality drinking water.
Last year, in an effort to further WACG's mission, the Indian Health Service and Navajo Engineering & Construction Authority (with the help of Federal CARES Act funds) installed small hydrants connected to piped water throughout the Navajo Nation, creating 58 new transitional water points available to tribal households. This more than doubled the 48 existing water access points in the Navajo Nation. Furthermore, for the duration of the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, CARES Act funds enable the WACG to waive water fees and provide water storage containers and disinfection tablets free of charge.
Funding has equipped the WACG to expand water access in the Navajo Nation during the COVID-19 pandemic, but health, human services, and Native justice advocates continue to search for economically feasible infrastructure expansion solutions that will last beyond the current health crisis. As facilities on tribal lands near the end of their life expectancy, more systems need maintenance and replacement, resulting in high estimated construction costs passed on to consumers who may not be able to afford higher utility costs. Rex Kontz, deputy general manager of the Navajo Tribal Utility, says that when it comes to raising utility rates, “all you’ll get is a bunch of people disconnected for nonpayment.”
While there is still an effort to supply homes with piped water, long term solutions to Navajo water inaccessibility may look different from solutions found in many parts of the United States. Navajo officials and utility providers are considering large water loading stations with high flow rates that could serve more residents than the new water access points. WACG members, including the IHS and Johns Hopkins University, are also assessing tech-based solutions like hydropanels and solar powered filters at wellheads.
For more on the Navajo Nation Water Access Coordination Group, click here. To read more about water access points installed in the Navajo Nation, click here.
President Biden’s recent unveiling of the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan renews emphasis on improvements to underperforming infrastructure. As the U.S. enters warmer months, wildfires and wildfire prevention will resume a chief position among infrastructure concerns.
2020 was the worst wildfire season experienced by America’s western states in 70 years. Thousands of Americans evacuated their homes throughout the season, and residents in and around wildfire-stricken areas endured air quality that ranked among the worst in the world.
Last week, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) hosted an ASCE Interchange interview with Geoff Coleman, a wildfire resilience expert and the vice president of California-based engineering firm BKF Engineers. Coleman spoke with Interchange’s Casey Dinges on key considerations for the future of wildfire-resilient infrastructure in America.
Coleman stressed the importance of public education on wildfire risks and mitigation strategies in fire-prone areas. He recommended that individuals consider evacuation routes and defensible space—the area around a structure designed to reduce fire danger—in home planning and maintenance, and suggested alternatives to traditional grass yards like rock gardens and drought-resistant, high moisture succulents.
More significantly, Coleman stressed the role that civil engineers and appointed officials must play in limiting community fire risks. When fires take hold of a wildland area, entire communication systems, water supplies, electric grids, and transportation networks are threatened. Coordination among emergency responders can be interrupted through the destruction of remotely located communication towers. Burning plastics and industrial materials may contaminate water that is then drawn back into municipal water supplies. An inability to isolate electric services can lead to mass shutdowns.
In order to diminish these possibilities, engineers and community leaders can focus on increasing defensible space around essential structures like water towers, cell towers, and power stations. Better yet, these essential structures can be located outside of fire-prone areas. Roads should be designed with evacuation, response, and reconstruction in mind: paved with compliant turnarounds, multiple points of egress, and widths in excess of forty feet to enable transportation of sufficient water supplies during a fire event and construction equipment in the aftermath.
Lastly, Coleman stressed the importance of introducing fire safety and prevention early into the design process through the involvement of fire code officials. The combined vigilance of engineers and their communities is required to create infrastructure that prioritizes public safety in wildfire-prone areas.
To view ASCE Interchange’s interview with Geoff Coleman, click here.
Homeowners and renters alike may be familiar with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA)’s Flood Maps, which provide a visual representation of a community’s flood risk. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is managed by FEMA, uses community flood risks gathered from FEMA maps to calculate insurance rates for its more than 5.1 million policyholders—policyholders who, by many accounts, used FEMA flood maps to calculate their potential risk and therefore inform policy-buying decisions in the first place.
Unfortunately, FEMA maps were created to represent risks at a community level, and consequently do not serve as an accurate measure of risk for individual properties. The flood risk research nonprofit First Street Foundation uses modeling techniques to fill in these informational gaps, thereby establishing the first public collection of property-level flood risk data in the United States.
In a 2020 report, First Street Foundation’s team of researchers found that 14.6 million properties across America were characterized by substantial flood risk (a one-percent chance of annual flooding). Millions of these property owners may have been previously unaware of their risk because their properties were located outside of FEMA’s Special Flood Hazard Areas and were therefore excluded from FEMA Flood Maps.
In a study published last month, First Street Foundation noted that some property owners took steps to mitigate potential flood damage in 2020, thereby decreasing the number of residential properties at risk of unmitigated flood-related financial loss to 4.3 million. This decrease shows marked improvement for many properties once at unabated risk. Nonetheless, the February report makes it clear that underestimated flood risk remains a significant financial threat to millions of American households.
The discrepancy between supposed flood risk and actual flood risk is evidenced by substantial difference between premium flood insurance rates and estimated financial costs to properties as a result of flooding events. The average NFIP premium for the 5.7 million American properties with any flood risk is $902, while the average estimated loss for these same properties is $3,343 per year. This means that the current economic risk to 5.7 million properties is 3.7 times higher than the NFIP’s insurance pricing. The disparity continues to grow as sampled data is limited to the 4.3 million properties with substantial flood risk, where the average estimated annual loss of $4,419 is 4.5 times greater than the NFIP’s premium of $981.
The First Street Foundation’s February report highlights the need for increased flood risk awareness among American property owners and increased flood insurance coverage among insurers. As flood events become more widespread and intense due to climate change, America’s number of at-risk properties will continue to rise.
Visit FloodFactor.com to access current flood risk data for 142 million public and private properties. Click here to read the First Street Foundation’s February 2021 report.
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