As many know, drought conditions can lead to low water levels on rivers, ports, and other waterways.
Transportation operations can then be limited with these reductions in available routes causing an increase in transportation costs. Recently, a drought map was created by the University College of London showing many dry areas around the globe. These places included East Africa, Canada, France, and Britain. But, the largest area was centered on Texas as it slowly recovers from what has been the driest year in the state’s history. Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Kansas have also been affected harshly. With the recent drought conditions in Texas, which have been severe enough to resurface World War-I era shipwrecks near Beaumont, waterway delays may have been the first thought in terms of transportation, but what about land transportation?
Drought conditions affect more than just waterways in the world of logistics.
Drought conditions can have an effect on more than just waterways because the higher temperatures that coexist with droughts can have an impact on the pavement performance of roadways. Even airplane runways can have softened asphalt and rail lines can buckle, causing derailments. In 2022, the Washington Post made a statement that buckled roads, warped train tracks, and expanded bridges were a stark reminder of the growing need to adapt quickly to a warming planet.
In recent years, these high heat indexes have affected critical infrastructures, and they are determined to become more frequent and intense. Asphalt itself tends to age faster at higher temperatures, thus reducing its lifespan. In addition to this, the depletion of water supplies can cause sinking of the ground, leading to sink holes and even more infrastructure damages. State departments do their best to keep up with these repairs or mitigate damages. Heavy freight routes are usually prioritized since they are the most likely to deteriorate faster. The drought early warning for the Navigation and Transportation Sector is essential to prepare for these impacts.
The U.S. government even opted to allocate roughly one half of the 2021-2025 National Highway Freight Program projects budget to roadway and bridge preservation. But, keep in mind it is documented that most of our infrastructure was built using the temperature records from the mid-20th century. Of course, this is not the world we are in today. If temperatures exceed this engineered range, pavements can start to soften, rail lines can kink, and steel can expand which can lead logistics complications which can cause delays in cargo being transported. This is especially true if the repairs of these obstacles are lengthened due to concerns for health and safety.
In 2017, a study assessed extreme climate impacts on infrastructure in Europe.
It noted that heat waves would in time account for roughly 92 percent of total hazard damage in the transport section by 2080, with a majority of the effects on roads and railways. This year in Texas, Houston has seen just how high heat can damage the roadways. It was reported in August 2023 that within a two-week time span, there had been ten instances in which the Houston area roadways sustained heat related damages, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. During this time period, daily temperatures in Houston had been near or above 100 degrees. Most of these damages where buckled roadways due to the prolonged high heat and drought conditions. Two of the ten caused total road closers for more than a day.
Now in October, Houston and parts of Texas are seeing a reprieve with the long sought after rain. However, rainy weather proceeding the heat wave could contribute to the damages even more if moisture gets inside cracks in the pavement and weakens it.
What does this look like with heavy haul and project cargo that can weigh a substantial amount?
Project cargo weight on these possible compromised roads and railways should be a concern even with DOT route surveys. In the future, DOT may require additional route surveys and bridge studies for weight distribution. Route studies might have to eventually include geological surveys of old infrastructures and roadways to determine if stable ground bearing pressure is adequate in times of severe drought and heat.
Houston, Texas itself is one of the largest heavy cargo transportation zones and because its one of the largest, almost all over dimensional cargo is run through Texas roadways and railways. There is even a heavy haul corridor going from Houston all the way up to Canada. Right now, the going trend in the U.S. is to build bigger and heavier, in hopes of reducing various costs and such as build times or productions times. What does this mean for the future considerations of transportation and infrastructure design for the state, keeping in mind the drought map mentioned above were Texas was the largest area recorded? I guess everything is truly bigger in Texas.
What else can be done to prevent these road issues?
Additional considerations to ensure loads are not impacted by potential road conditions could include having DOT approve a couple routes at one time instead of just one, but this can be costly. If there is no planned route, then changes can be made as you go and as heat related infrastructure impacts arise. But, super loads need a planned route over 2000 pounds that they cannot alter from. With that being said, if transportation and infrastructure sectors do not alter their engineering to withstand the above changing weather conditions, the development of more specialized heavy haul equipment and trailers from the major HHE manufactures Goldhofer or Scheuerle could be what is needed because planting trees around roadways to cool them is surely not the answer, especially for project cargo with various widths.