Using Climate Data to Assess Risks in the Transportation Sector

Ryan Smith and Maginda Magendrathajan, Canadian Centre for Climate Services

Representing over $88 billion of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product in 2021 and employing over a million people, Canada’s roads, railways, airports and seaports move approximately $1.2 trillion worth of goods to international markets each year. The average Canadian spends more money on transportation than just about anything else with the exception of shelter.1 Moreover, transportation is essential for maintaining public safety and connecting our communities. Threats to Canada’s transportation infrastructure are a threat to our very way of life.

Extreme weather is a persistent threat to the transportation sector. Bridges, highways, winter roads, rail lines, shipping routes, and airport infrastructure are vulnerable to flooding rains, rising seas, hot temperatures, and high winds, just to name a few. As the climate continues to change, more intense weather and climate events are expected to occur more frequently, putting these vital systems – and the people who rely on them – at increased risk.2

Taking action to reduce the risks posed by climate change involves a two-pronged approach:

  1. Climate change mitigation: As Canada’s second-largest contributor of greenhouse gases, the transportation sector has a lot of work to do to reduce its impact on the climate.3
  2. Climate change adaptation: All transportation systems are climate-sensitive and the changing climate is already affecting all modes of transportation in every region of Canada. In order to make our infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather and adapt to future climate change, we need to make climate-informed decisions.

Making climate-informed decisions can help reduce risks, protect communities and critical infrastructure, and reduce costs over the long term – all while building resilience to the impacts of climate change. Climate service organizations connect decision-makers with relevant and reliable climate information and data, along with the knowledge of how to find and use it.

In May 2022, the Canadian Centre for Climate Services, in partnership with the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium and Transport Canada, delivered a series of training workshops to members of the Transportation Association of Canada (TAC) on finding and using climate data to assess infrastructure related risks. Webinar recordings are available for public viewing on TAC’s website. Key messages from the three sessions are summarized below.

Webinar 1 – Using Climate Information in the Transportation Sector, Part 1: Introduction to Climate Information for Decision Making

Day one provided an overview of key climate change concepts. This introductory session described how climate science and climate data and information could inform adaptation planning by thinking about impacts, vulnerabilities and risks. Topics included:

  • climate change impacts and risks
  • historical climate data trends and limitations
  • future climate projections and emissions scenarios
  • the importance of considering climate change in adaptation decision-making

Webinar 2 – Using Climate Information in the Transportation Sector, Part 2: Finding and Accessing Climate Data

Not many years ago, accessing and making sense of future climate data would have been a major barrier for adaptation planners. Thankfully, there are now several online data portals to aid decision makers. The second session in this training series provided an overview of four key sources of climate information:

A demonstration of each data portal was shared with participants, with facilitators describing what these portals have in common and what is unique. Opportunities for participants to ask questions led to some great discussion during this session.

Webinar 3 – Using Climate Information in the Transportation Sector, Part 3: Assessing Risk – A Learning Exercise

Having access to climate data is great – but how do you use this information to inform adaptation decisions? Bridging the gap between climate model output and changes in climate risk to a piece of transportation infrastructure, like a road, can be a daunting challenge. However, with the right framework, a lot of information can be unpacked and used to make strategic decisions.

In the final session, Transport Canada shared some lessons learned from the Transportation Asset Risk Assessment program following which, the Canadian Centre for Climate Services used a fictional road in northern Ontario to assess climate changes, impacts, and risks. This interactive learning session involved choosing climate indices, looking at how climate risk will change for various components of the road, and identifying potential adaptation measures to reduce climate risks. This session highlighted the importance of assessing climate risk using the information that is available to begin adaptation planning, while recognizing that risk assessments need to be iterative to include evolving understanding and information.