Building infrastructure for extreme weather conditions

Lighting striking down on high rise buildings at Surfers Paradise, Gold Coast

Extreme weather will likely be in our future as a result of climate change, making it crucial that our infrastructure is built to withstand the worst conditions thrown at us, and our existing infrastructure is retrofitted and upgraded. So, what extreme weather conditions can we expect and what does weather-resistant infrastructure look like? We explore these questions below. 

Will there be extreme weather in the future?

As the Earth’s air and oceans grow warmer as a result of climate change, many natural processes are affected, including the water cycle, weather patterns and the stability of ice in the north and south poles. These changes can result in extreme weather conditions, such as severe storms and wildfires. 

Severe weather events are defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as “an occurrence of a value of a weather or climate variable beyond a threshold that lies near the end of the range of observations for the variable”.

According to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, climate change has already resulted in extreme climate conditions across the world, including heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts and tropical cyclones. If greenhouse gas emissions are not contained to a sufficient extent, it is likely that extreme weather conditions will continue to occur.

Different climate seasons

Is our current infrastructure good enough?

Much of our infrastructure was built to withstand normal weather conditions, with the occasional severe event, but still within the standard range. For example, a bridge may be designed for 100 years of use and four severe weather events per year. However, there will obviously be trouble if there are eight severe weather events per year instead of four.

The worst-case scenario is the failure of our critical infrastructure during severe weather events, including drainage and water systems, seawalls, and power grids, all of which can grind society to a halt and bring about humanitarian crises. For example, eastern Australia faced devastating floods in 2021-22, where much of local infrastructure was incapable of withstanding the torrential rainfall that occurred, resulting in widespread destruction across Queensland and New South Wales. 

Residential houses submerged in water after 2011 Brisbane Floods

Building weather-resistant infrastructure

There has already been significant attention paid to weather-proofing infrastructure for extreme conditions. In 2018, the OECD released their Climate-resilient Infrastructure report, which delves into the topic in great detail. In the report, the OECD states “Climate-resilient infrastructure has the potential to improve the reliability of service provision, increase asset life and protect asset returns.”

The report emphasises the need for public and private investment to make climate-resilient infrastructure a reality. A few vulnerable areas of infrastructure were determined to be most in need of investment, including water storage, flood defence, water supply and sanitation. However, these cannot be said to be the most vulnerable in every region, and investment will largely be determined by local needs. 

For example, the New South Wales government has developed plans and policies to upgrade their infrastructure to hold out against the threats which the state is most likely to face, including floods, bushfires and storms. The government is also retrofitting existing infrastructure and assets, reinforcing buildings to protect them against storms and upgrading electrical systems to withstand high temperatures. 

Much of Australia is also susceptible to bushfires, which has spurred government to develop preventative and reactive plans. For example, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has developed mapping technology to identify areas prone to bushfires in Queensland, determining high risk areas by considering fire weather severity, fuel availability and the layout of the land in certain areas. As well as this, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements was established after the 2019-20 bushfires, with the aim of providing recommendations to reform Australia’s natural disaster response.

Smoky bushfire next to road on Australian highway

Marvels of weather-resistant infrastructure

There are incredible examples of climate-resistant infrastructure around the world, with perhaps the most notable being the Netherland’s Delta Works. The Delta Works, constructed between 1954 and 1997, was built to protect the mainland of the southwestern Netherlands from floods brought about by storms in the North Sea. 

Much of the Netherlands is below sea level, and with the variety of European rivers which flow through the country to the sea, a large volume of water is always present. Consisting of 13 dams and a system of sluices, locks, dikes, levees and storm surge barriers, the Delta Works effectively shortens the coast of the Netherlands, reducing the length of the dikes which protect the land from the sea. 

Another example of weather-resistant infrastructure is France’s Millau Viaduct, the tallest bridge in the world. The Millau Viaduct was built to withstand strong winds and earthquakes, with a flexible design which allows it to sway and adjust to forces that act against it. The bridge also incorporates an anti-icing system, including a heating function to prevent ice buildup on the bridge’s surface. The bridge was built to ease congestion on the route from Northern France to the Mediterranean coast, and is a marvel of engineering and weather-resistant weather. 

These marvels of engineering are proof that we a capable enough to build infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather conditions. If we’re properly motivated and act prudently, we can bolster our communities to withstand the curveballs that mother nature may throw at us. 

Netherlands dam

Infrastructure vacancies

Related articles

Learn more about the history, challenges and benefits of public transport - and where it's heading in the future. How will the Sunshine State's Big Build plans impact job prospects? From solar powered trains to tracks visible from outer space, discover some fun facts about the Australian rail industry. Pioneering engineering accomplishments which have pushed limitations and changed the world. We look at some of the world's most remarkable infrastructure projects: the tallest building, longes...