In Colorado, Climate Change Already Slowing You and Your Stuff, Action Needed Says Author of Climate Report

Passenger rail lines that share track with freight trains, such as Amtrak's California Zepher and RTD's future B-Line to Longmont, could see more frequent delays as heat restrictions slow or halt trains. Image: Wikipedia Commons.
Passenger rail lines that share track with freight trains, such as Amtrak's California Zepher and RTD's future B-Line to Longmont, could see more frequent delays as heat restrictions slow or halt trains. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

In Colorado, climate change will slow the delivery of packages, dramatically increase the number potholes, halt trains and planes that carry people and goods throughout the state, and make waiting for buses outside uncomfortable.

Some of these things are already happening, are likely to intensify in the next five to 10 years, and will require critical upgrades to transportation infrastructure according to Paul Chinowsky, a professor of engineering at C.U. Boulder, who was one of the authors of the National Climate Assessment.

“We really need to change the discussion to not if we’re going to do something, but when we’re going to start doing it,” he says.

Harsh New Reality
To keep Colorado’s people and their stuff moving, elected officials must outline priorities and start finding the money to make critical improvements because changes are coming fast, says Chinlowski.

“The trends are all showing more intense precipitation and hotter temperatures,” he says. “Those are two big things that most of the models can agree on.”

This warning comes after President Trump scoffed at the climate report. “I don’t believe it,” he said after the assessment was released in October.

Paul Chinowski is one of the authors of National Climate Assessment. Photo: Patrick Campbell, University of Colorado.

But even climate skeptics cannot argue with the fact that temperatures in Colorado already climb to the upper 90s more often and natural disasters such as fires, floods, and mudslides strike more frequently. As these problems become more common, keeping roads, bridges, tunnels, rails and airports functioning will require costly upgrades.

Colorado is already behind in maintaining its infrastructure, earning a “D+” rating on the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers. In November, voters rejected two statewide measures that would have funded improvements to the state’s transportation needs.

“We are a state where the citizens have always been very reluctant to pay to do these things,” says Chinowsky.

But he says that elected officials must recognize that adapting to a changing climate will require doing things that are unpopular — and it’s time for them to show leadership.

“We’re not doing the hard things,” he says. “We’ve passed the point of everybody being happy and polite about everything. We really need to take some aggressive action.”

Last year in Phoenix, officials stopped airplanes from taking off for several days when the city baked under heat that reached 115 degrees. Even if you don’t travel to Phoenix often, your stuff probably does, Chinowsky says. The city is one of the largest distribution hubs in the Southwest.

“This is where we start seeing disruptions,” he says about overnight and two-day delivery services. “Everything has to work on time.”

Train travel, whether for people or freight, is likely to be delayed more frequently, too. During intense heat, tracks can curve, buckle or misalign, which forces railroads to slow or stop trains completely.

Many people don’t realize how essential trains are in their daily lives, says Chinowsky about the many things transported by rail, including groceries, consumer products, materials used in construction, and coal, which remains the state’s dominant source of energy for electricity generation.

For passengers, heat restrictions will most affect lines that share tracks with freight trains. That includes RTD’s future expansion of the B-Line to Longmont and Amtrak, which in Colorado shares track with the BNSF and Union Pacific railroads.

“Commercial freight always has first priority, and if it gets backed up you have to wait until that gets cleared up,” says Chinowsky.

Roads and bridges will need to be built to withstand ferocious new conditions, says Chinowsky, which will add staggering costs to ensure the infrastructure can stand up to more heat, rain and floods.

“You’re going to have to design for what the environment is likely to look like 30 years from now and not what it was 30 years ago, which is what we tend to do,” he says.

Drought and a drier climate are expected to intensify in the West, but rainfall and floods will change in ways that create problems for existing infrastructure.

“It’s not necessarily a lot more water,” says Chinowsky. “We’re not getting wetter, but the amount of rain we’re getting comes much more intense and short bursts.”

As storms become faster and more extreme, water flows will wash out roads and expose the vulnerabilities of the nation’s 100,000 bridges that need to be reinforced.

Heat also will present problems to asphalt, which degrades more quickly in hot conditions.

The Denver Department of Public Works says its asphalt is designed to withstand temperatures up to 150 degrees. But the number of freeze-thaw cycles, which quickly deteriorate roads, is likely to increase, especially in the mountains.

“We can increase the maintenance cycle, which is going to cost money at the agency level,” he says. “Or we can let them degrade further, which is going to cost more to the average motorist or the transit districts for more repair to their cars or buses.”

Walking, Biking and Transit
Colorado planners must make sustainable forms of transportation more attractive as a changing climate continues to make roads more costly to maintain, says Chinowsky. And that will ruffle feathers.

“You’ve got to make transit either a highly attractive, or highly disincentivize using those cars,” he says. “Whatever you do is going to be unpopular to somebody.”  

Attracting more people to transit will require making it faster and more reliable. “If it takes people 50 percent more time or more to do public transport to get to work, they’re just not going to do it,” says Chinowsky.

But officials should also disincentivize driving. Making driving less convenient can be achieved by reducing parking (which Minneapolis and San Francisco did recently) and installing bus, bike and pedestrian street improvements.

“There’s not enough pain now,” he says. “Yes we have traffic, but we don’t have as much as California, Atlanta or Boston. It’s not so much that it’s really an inconvenience.”  

The great outdoors
But even if significant numbers of people shift to walking, biking and transit, spending time outside will become less comfortable.

“Just think about waiting for a bus standing outside when it’s 95 degrees out,” he says. With more intense heat and longer allergy and asthma seasons, those who are already unhealthy are likely to visit emergency rooms more often. “What we’re going to see is the vulnerable populations are getting affected very quickly.”

Action, not plans, needed
Chinowsky says that elected officials must recognize that adapting to a changing climate will require doing things that are unpopular — and it’s time for them to show leadership. To keep Colorado’s people and their stuff moving, he suggests a concrete set of priorities.

“We can’t afford to do everything,” he says. “Whether you’re in Denver whether you’re at the state level, let’s start creating the 10 most important things that must be done right now.”

  • TakeFive

    Last year in Phoenix, officials stopped airplanes from taking off for several days when the city baked under heat that reached 115 degrees

    All due respect to the professor but this is science fiction. The so-called issue was only with planes made by Bombardier and that was a misunderstanding.

    Last summer, American Airlines canceled 60 regional flights over three days as temperatures neared 120 degrees. On Tuesday, as temperatures in Phoenix again flirted with the 120-degree mark, American Airlines issued a news release saying there was no danger to travelers of a repeat flurry of canceled flights. What happened last year, the airline said, was math-related, not heat-related.

    After last summer, American worked with Bombardier and the Federal Aviation Administration to calculate new operating limits for the 70-to 90-seat regional jets, the CRJ700 and CRJ900, used on flights operated by American’s partners, American Eagle, Mesa and Sky West.

    The 10-month review process, according to the release, resulted in the jets being cleared to fly in temperatures as high as 123.8 degrees. The previous limit was 117.86.

    For the record “last year” refers to 2017, not 2018.

    • MT

      Larger planes may not have had cancellations, but the higher temps do affect the weight they can carry. It’s likely they had to reduce the amount of cargo or baggage they could carry on those flights.

      • TakeFive

        You could be right assuming full planes. Phoenix only exceeds 115 degrees a few days a year for a few hours; I think 2018 it was twice, one day at 115 and one day at 116. Actual cargo planes can schedule their flights for the cooler part of the day. The advantage of the high pressure induced heat is that it will pull up monsoonal flows from pacific coast of Mexico which then quickly cools things down.

        • Camera_Shy

          I believe it was the summer of ’90 when the temperature exceeded 120F at the Phoenix airport. As I understand things, as it warms up the planes need more speed to get lift. The runways in PHX are only long enough for a jet to safely get up to “lift speed” if the temperature is below 120F. Over 120F and there is not enough runway length…as I understand it.

          • TakeFive

            Well done!

            July has this area’s hottest average high temperature, 106.1 degrees compared to 103.9 in June. But three of the four hottest days on record in Phoenix, including the all-time high of 122 degrees on June 26, 1990, have occurred in June.

            Yes, getting lift is the issue. Sky Harbor has only 1 of 3 runways at 11,489 ft where DIA has 5 of 7 runways at 12,000.

          • Camera_Shy

            I can only guess that Denver needs the runway length because the air is thinner and it takes more speed (length) compared to those runways at lower altitude.

  • TakeFive

    During intense heat, tracks can curve, buckle or misalign, which forces railroads to slow or stop trains completely.

    One of Union Pacific’s busiest corridors moves freight from the docks in Long Beach to the interior of the country runs through the southern deserts of Arizona. Apparently the heat is not a problem for them. In fact they have a yuge area where they store engines when unneeded due to the ideal climate for doing so.

    • Pismoe

      Sun kinks as they are called result when steel rail expands or contracts beyond what the stress in the rail can handle. The stress is usually calculated and allowed for when the rail is laid down and welded. Welded rail is like a guitar string. If it breaks for any reason and your around you’ll know it.

  • TakeFive

    I’m delighted to agree with the professor that better transit is needed.

    But I wouldn’t agree that waiting for a bus when it’s 95 degrees is a big deal. The eastern plains is semi-arid so typically higher temps means less humidity; it’s likely easier than waiting for a bus on cold, windy days. It’s a seasonal thing and I’d prefer the warm days.

    • mckillio

      And that temp drops significantly if it’s in the shade.

  • Gz7

    What a load of crap.

  • Pismoe

    It could be these natural phenomena (mudslides, landslides, flooding, etc.) seem more frequent because the population of the state has increased several fold and occupies a greater percentage of the state boundaries. And media reporting of these events is in the palm of your hand theses days. I’m not convinced the world as we know it is coming to an end as the good professor seems to suggest.


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