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How Climate Change Can Affect Bridges and Bridge Inspections

road bridge over a railroad track
March 5, 2024

Bridges stand as critical connectors in our transportation networks, and they are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of a warming planet. From the frequency of extreme weather events to the very materials we rely on for construction, every aspect of bridge engineering is being challenged by the shifts in our environment.

As environmental conditions continue to shift and critical infrastructure protection becomes a key goal, the engineering and maintenance of bridges demand immediate attention.

Learn how climate change is affecting bridges, the materials we use to build them and the vital role of bridge inspection in safeguarding their safety and longevity.

Environmental Events and Bridge Integrity

“The anticipated conditions used for bridge designs are being rendered inaccurate,” Vanessa Victor, a Senior Engineer at Ulteig cautions. The severity of this issue is underscored by the fact that bridges are designed to last for decades, if not centuries.Ā  With climate change, the environmental conditions that a bridge was originally designed to withstand may change drastically within its lifespan. Even current design codes are being challenged with the notable changes.

Increased flooding and associated scouring are among the most immediate concerns. “Climate change is impacting the frequency and intensity of flooding events,” notes Victor. The process of scour, where fast-moving water erodes the sediment around bridge foundations, poses a significant threat to structural integrity.

South Dakota’s recent focus on incorporating anti-scour measures in bridge design is a testament to this growing concern.

Methods, Materials and Critical Infrastructure Protection

As the climate deviates from past patterns, the chosen materials may not perform as expected, leading to accelerated deterioration and potential structural vulnerabilities. This necessitates not only a review of material selection criteria but also an adaptation of construction and maintenance techniques to account for these new variables.

Region-specific concrete mixes are chosen to withstand local conditions, including freeze/thaw cycles and temperature fluctuations. However, climate change is challenging these regional assumptions. “Unanticipated temperature fluctuations can damage the bond between prestressing strands and concrete,” Victor notes, highlighting one of many challenges that demand methodical engineering solutions.

The Evolving Landscape of Bridge Inspections

Routine bridge inspections must evolve to consider the impacts of climate change. Inspectors are now tasked with looking beyond the standard checklist, incorporating climate risk assessments to identify potential future failures before they occur. Victor explains that “maintenance actions such as mitigating berm erosion and undermining, bearing replacements and bridge deck repairs are often responses to climate-exacerbated issues.”

While climate change may not be directly cited in bridge rehabilitation needs, its effects are implicitly interwoven with the long-term degradation of bridges. Cities prone to flooding, states concerned with rising sea levels, and areas with timber bridges at risk of wildfire exposure are particularly interested in these impacts.

Engineering Solutions for a Changing Climate

Victor’s insights reveal a comprehensive picture: climate change is fundamentally altering how we must approach the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of bridges. It underscores the need for a proactive, forward-thinking approach that anticipates and mitigates the multifaceted challenges posed by our changing environment.

Ulteig is at the forefront of adapting bridge design and maintenance to the realities of climate change. We offer climate risk and vulnerability assessments, develop climate adaptation and resilience strategies, and provide technical guidance on climate impacts and bridge inspections.

Partner with us for bridge inspections and critical infrastructure protection projects. For more information, get in touch with us today.

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