Roads of the Future: How Climate Data can be Used to Adapt Our Roads to a Changing Climate

Roads of the Future: How Climate Data can be Used to Adapt Our Roads to a Changing Climate

Stacey O’Sullivan and Kari Tyler, Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium

In April 2022, the Ontario Asphalt Pavement Council (a Council of the Ontario Road Builders’ Association) hosted a Partners-in-Quality seminar series at locations across Ontario. Two members of the ClimateData.ca partnership (the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium and the Canadian Centre for Climate Services) teamed up to deliver a presentation to industry and government officials on how climate change will increase weather-related impacts to road infrastructure, how this will impact decision-making processes, and where transportation practitioners can access tailored climate information and data for their sector. Click this link to view a recording of the presentation in its entirety

The road building industry is well accustomed to dealing with weather extremes. From hot summers that can lead to pavement rutting and binder bleed, to freeze-thaw cycles leading to cracks and potholes, to large rainfall events that overwhelm culverts and ditches, weather is a primary factor in the engineering of resilient and safe roads in Canada.

After a century of climate change, Canadians are witnessing first hand the increased dangers and risks posed by a more extreme and less predictable climate system. The road building industry in particular will need to adapt to higher temperatures that shatter historical records, more frequent extreme rain events, more variable freeze-thaw cycling (which weakens and deteriorates infrastructure), and changes to the seasonal timing of weather events (for example, winter freeze-up and spring thaw events which can impact the viability of ice roads).

The question the road building industry must ask is: what actions can be taken now to make our road systems more resilient to future changes?

To start finding solutions to these challenges, a thorough understanding of the changing climate is required. This is why websites like ClimateData.ca are published. With ClimateData.ca, Canadians can view, analyze, and download climate change data at a high resolution of 10 x 6 km for the entire country.

Climate parameters particularly relevant to road builders include freeze-thaw cycles, indicators of extreme precipitation (e.g., Maximum 1-Day or 5-Day Precipitation, Wet Days > 20 mm), and indicators of extreme heat (e.g., Hottest Day, Days with Tmax > 32oC). All of these parameters, and more, can be accessed on the Variable page of ClimateData.ca. Users can also set custom thresholds for a variety of different climate parameters on the Analyze page.

Of course, you need more than climate data to determine how to build a road that is better adapted for climate change. For inspiration on next steps and lessons learned, users can also visit ClimateData.ca’s Transportation Module. The module offers a diverse set of case studies and additional resources tailored to engineers, planners, and other members of the transportation sector. The case studies provide examples of actions already taken to incorporate climate data into decision-making in different parts of Canada. Additional resources and links to support design decisions are also linked in the module.

Road practitioners in particular may be interested in the “Pavement and Extreme Temperatures in the City of Toronto” case study, housed within this module. This case study outlines how the City of Toronto took into account increasing extreme temperatures in their decision to proactively “bump-up” pavement performance grades to decrease heat-related pavement deterioration.

The goal of case studies like these is to showcase transferable lessons in the use and application of climate data, within climate adaptation contexts. Using these lessons, readers can then take action to access and use climate data within their own contexts to make more informed decisions for the future.

There is also no shortage of one-one-one help available – from regional climate service hubs like the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, ClimateWest, Ouranos, and CLIMAtlantic, to the Canadian Centre for Climate Services (CCCS), Canada’s national climate service provider. If you are having trouble finding what you are looking for on ClimataData.ca you can reach out to the CCCS Climate Services Support Desk.

Most design decisions up until now have been based on an assumption that the future climate will resemble the past. But the climate is changing and will continue to change. Decision-making processes will need to incorporate a much wider range of future possible climate conditions. Taking action now to reduce risks and boost resilience is our collective responsibility.

Whether it’s boosting pavement grades to account for hotter temperatures, designing stormwater systems to handle larger peak volumes of rainfall, or building bridges to better withstand localized flooding, taking preemptive action now will save money in the long term and make our roads safer. The tools, datasets, and expert knowledge are available to support you.

Check out the presentation in its entirety here.