By Friedhelm Best, vice president APAC, HIMA
When we talk about critical infrastructures, not too many people realise just how critical these are. Governments term critical infrastructures to be essential for the running of a society and the economy, and warrants the protection for national security. These infrastructures include shelter and thermal regulation, agriculture, utilities such as water, gas, and electricity, public health, transportation, telecommunications, uniformed security and military groups, and financial services.
So, in many installations of critical infrastructures such as utilities and transportation, damage, including that of heat damage, can severely cripple or temporarily disable these services.
The Growing Threat of Heat Damage
Given the onset of climate change, the world has witnessed a steady increase in average temperatures and a rise in the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events in mere decades. In 2022, the average land and ocean surface temperature was 0.86°C higher than the 20th century average of 13.9°C—the sixth highest temperature dating back to 1880.
Humans are not the only ones feeling the heat, with the impact of rising temperatures and heatwaves on critical infrastructures often overlooked. Power lines, railways, and process plants are designed to withstand certain temperature thresholds, but as heatwaves push beyond these limits meant for a cooler age, the structural integrity of these systems can be compromised especially as they age. This can lead to malfunctions, failures, and even complete shutdowns, with far-reaching safety consequences for businesses and communities.
Impact on Transportation Systems
Transportation is one sector that is highly vulnerable to heat damage. Roads, rail tracks, and bridges can expand and buckle under extreme temperatures, leading to structural deformations and potential failures. This again is compounded by material degradation over time.
For example, rail tracks can warp under extreme heat as most of them in place were built using temperature records of the mid-20th century. The steel used to build these tracks expand under the heat, and without sufficient room to expand will buckle—curving railway lines which not only disrupts transportation networks, but also poses safety risks for drivers and passengers with derailment.
Airplanes are particularly sensitive to extreme heat, especially as more aircraft are built with high-tech materials, including composites. High temperatures reduce air density and limit lift, making it more challenging for aircraft to take off and land safely. Heat degradation of composites and other surfaces and joints can also become points of failure. Furthermore, the increased demand for air conditioning in vehicles during heatwaves can strain cooling systems, potentially causing engine overheating and breakdowns.
Consequences for Power Grids and Energy Infrastructure
Extreme heat poses significant challenges for energy infrastructures, including power grids and thermoelectric power plants. As temperatures rise, power plants may experience reduced capacity and efficiency due to increased cooling requirements. For example, nuclear power plants that rely on river water for cooling may face limitations if the river temperature exceeds safe operating conditions.
The age of a process infrastructure is another factor that adds concern amid rising temperatures. With aging infrastructures, the likelihood of failure is higher, and is increased with the factor of increased heat exposure. Safety mechanisms in place within these plants could be victims of premature wear and tear, as different materials deform differently due to the temperature increase.
Three Protective Measures and Adaptation Strategies
To mitigate the risks of heat damage to critical infrastructures, industry-leading safety solutions, protective measures, and adaptation strategies are essential. Businesses, communities, and governments must work together to build resilience and implement protective measures that can withstand the challenges posed by rising temperatures.
Here are some key approaches to consider:
- Audit the Critical Infrastructures
Traditional design standards based on historical climate data may no longer be sufficient. An audit of current infrastructures is crucial. Work with competent consultants to bring internal expertise up to speed with the current standards and trends. Infrastructure leads and regulators need to update their design codes and standards to account for projected temperature changes and extreme weather events, with proper industry education and enforcement, if necessary.
- Upgrading Infrastructure Design and Standards
Designing infrastructures with future climate conditions in mind is crucial for ensuring its resilience to heat damage. For example, roads and bridges can be built or upgraded with materials that are more resistant to heat-related deformations. Cooling systems in buildings and data centers can be designed to handle higher temperatures and increased cooling demands, with hardware upgrades that are more compatible with computational and energy efficiency. By incorporating climate resilience into infrastructure design, the risks of heat damage can be significantly reduced.
- Implementing Early Warning Systems, Emergency Response Plans and Safety Installations
Early warning systems and effective emergency response plans are crucial for managing heat-related risks and minimising the impact on critical infrastructures. Monitoring weather conditions, heat indices, and temperature trends can help identify potential heatwaves and provide timely alerts. This allows infrastructure operators to implement necessary precautions, such as reducing power loads, implementing contingency plans, and activating cooling measures.
Additionally, having robust emergency response plans in place can help facilitate swift and effective actions during heatwaves. This includes establishing communication protocols, coordinating with relevant stakeholders, and ensuring the availability of necessary resources and support systems. Periodic crisis simulations may be run to prepare field teams for readiness.
Safety installations can prove to be lifesavers when dealing with faulty machinery from heat damage. For example, German safety company HIMA’s HIMatrix is a range of versatile, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) controllers for small to mid-scale safety-critical applications in the rail industry. The standard system is pre-certified in accordance with CENELEC SIL 4 and can be used in any system integrator’s solution, and is designed to be compact, vibration and shock resistant, and having an extended operating temperature range. This makes it ideal for demanding environments, such as passenger trains where it can be used in networked and time-critical applications—acting as an automated kill switch when something goes off tangent.
Heat damage to critical infrastructures is a growing concern in the face of rising temperatures and climate change. The impact of extreme heat events on power grids, transportation systems, manufacturing facilities, and data centers can be significant, disrupting operations, compromising safety, and increasing costs. However, by implementing audits, protective measures, upgrading infrastructure design, and investing in cooling technologies, businesses and communities can enhance resilience and mitigate the risks associated with heat damage.
Adaptation to the changing climate requires a collaborative effort, involving governments, businesses, and individuals. By prioritising climate resilience and implementing proactive strategies, we can ensure the long-term sustainability and functionality of critical infrastructures in the face of increasing heat challenges. Together, we can build a future where infrastructures remain resilient, efficient, and safe, in the hotter decades ahead.