Building sustainable coastal infrastructure: our lives and livelihoods depend on it
22 May 2023
Tom Parry & Leonard Sands
Governments play an important role in building robust, sustainable infrastructure that will protect coastal communities from the potentially devastating impacts of climate change. A report from the United Nations for Disaster Risk Reduction found that over the last 20 years, 90 % of major climate disasters have been caused by 6,457 floods, storms, heatwaves, droughts and other weather-related events. Insights from Geo-data are providing decision makers with accurate real-world information and predictions, enabling them to build more robust and sustainable infrastructure that is longer lasting, adaptable and cost-effective.
The impacts of climate change
Infrastructure is the foundation of the global economy, connecting people, improving quality of life, and promoting health and safety. Coastal communities and infrastructure are at serious risk from the consequences of climate change. Coastal infrastructure are structures and facilities built along coastlines. Global mean sea level will keep rising and extreme weather events will become more frequent and severe, resulting in storm surges, flooding, landslides and land loss.
Much of the world’s existing coastal infrastructure was constructed several decades ago. Some ports and harbour walls date back to the early 1900s like Alexandria Port in Egypt and Cleveleys Sea Wall in the UK. These structures weren’t engineered to withstand the increasing effects of climate change, so are at risk of failure. For example, large structures are designed to operate for up to 100 years. However, a changing climate resulting in more extreme weather events mean that climate considerations when the structure was originally designed are becoming outdated. This leaves the infrastructure operating outside of its tolerance levels. The San Francisco Seawall is a great example of this. It is the backbone of the waterfront supporting over $100 billion in assets and annual economy activity. But the Seawall is now in desperate need of repair and is vulnerable to seismic and flood risks.
This is placing the livelihoods of coastal communities in jeopardy. Severe storms and floods have the potential to devastate critical infrastructure. It’s likely that some small Pacific Island nations will become uninhabitable within a matter of decades. So understanding the risks and climate hazards early on is crucial for successful planning.
Storm surge dam in the Netherlands venting water during high tide
Playing the long game
Governments around the globe need to commit substantial resources to improving the resilience of their coastal infrastructure. We’re talking big money. And big decisions that need to be made. For example, the UK government have attributed £200 million to fund flood and coastal programmes to improve resilience. In America, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has been delivered to help rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure. To date, over 20,000 projects have been funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help build resilient and sustainable infrastructure from coast to coast.
To make decisions with confidence, governments need to be able to trust the data. They need to know that the data analysis being put forward is representative of the real world. The answer lies in improving the accuracy, analysis, integration and communication of information, not just during the construction phase but throughout the lifetime of coastal infrastructure, from design to operations.
“All models are wrong, some are useful”
In 1976, a British statistician named George Box wrote the famous line, “all models are wrong, some are useful”. This could be used to describe today’s numerical modelling. Climate change has rewritten the rules of the game. Numerical modelling alone can no longer be relied upon to predict weather patterns and their effects on coastlines. New approaches that leverage observational data is needed to develop a more accurate understanding of long-term changes. Particularly in our coastal environments where modelling is notoriously difficult. Today’s decisions about coastal infrastructure need to incorporate the compound effect of the many different consequences of climate change.
Early investment in data holds the key to reducing the risk of spiralling project costs, overruns and uncertainties. There are three key items on the tick list when it comes to building resilient and sustainable infrastructure: the costs associated with designing sustainable infrastructure in an uncertain future and changing climates, understanding the conditions to effectively build infrastructure in challenging environments on time and within budget, and lastly, predicting when the right time is to act and adapt infrastructure.
The technical ability to bring together and analyse different digital geospatial datasets is critical. Insights from Geo-data incorporate the effects of climate change, so can drive up the accuracy of predictions and reliably inform robust infrastructure design. It’s highly accurate, observational and continuously updated. Equally important is the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to speed up processing times and continuously improve information accuracy.
Geo-data analysis is highly complex. To derive maximum benefit, its findings and recommendations must be communicated to decision-makers simply, using visualisation techniques to aid their understanding about what’s happening above and below ground over time, as well as the latest predictions. The integration of data across all ground (information collected in the field) and spatial (data specific to a geographical area or location) dimensions from early planning through to operation will reduce uncertainty, improve decision making and deliver sustainable actions to ensure resilient and sustainable infrastructure.
Aerial view of a 3D model of flooded Cambria County
Data and insights are the key to answering some of the big challenging questions when building sustainable infrastructure and protecting coastal communities. When you create a structure like the Texas coastal spine project that crosses over kilometres and kilometres of coastline, it is so immense in the data demand. How do you predict it? How do you manage the risk?
By making sure the right people are making the right decisions at the right time is equally key. Governments are the ones that will have to understand the challenge at hand first to be able to understand the scale of the engineering challenges that lie ahead and by leveraging the power of Geo-data can increase the efficiency and confidence of coastal infrastructure design, implementation, and operational monitoring.
Our focus is on providing decision makers with the data needed to support coastal infrastructure projects and we are well-equipped to take on the challenging task at hand and provide support every step of the way. Through our commitment to our core values, we strive to overcome obstacles and drive towards a sustainable future for coastal communities.
Did you know?
35 % of all infrastructure projects globally are sustainable
Approximately 30-55 % of direct flood damages will be suffered by the infrastructure sector
An estimate of USD $6.3 trillion per year will need to be invested in infrastructure globally until 2030 to keep pace with development
Spending approximately USD $50 billion per year on flood defences for coastal cities will reduce expected losses in 2050 from USD $1 trillion to USD $60-63 billion
About the author
Tom Parry is the Global Lead for Coastal Resilience and Leonard Sands is the Global Business Line Director for LSC