New Study Warns of Changing Climate’s Impact on Midwest Infrastructure


As intense weather events batter U.S. coastal cities and offshore islands, a new study from the Midwest Economic Policy Institute warns that the threat of climate change extends much farther inland, with potentially devastating impacts on transportation and infrastructure systems across the Midwest.

“Whether we like it or not, the climate of the Midwest is already changing,” said study author Mary Craighead. “It is vital for policymakers to understand the potential costs and consequences of these changes, and to be proactive in taking actions that are necessary to protect communities and the infrastructure on which our entire regional economy depends.”

Specifically, Craighead cites growth in the region’s average air temperature by 4.5 degrees since the 1980s, growing electricity outages, a 27 percent increase in the number of “very heavy precipitation days” since the 1950s, a steady reduction in ice coverage on the Great Lakes, and more frequent freeze-thaw cycles to highlight how various infrastructure systems could ultimately be impacted.

“Rising temperatures and the likelihood of more storms and flooding reduce the lifespan of roads and bridges, could cause railways to buckle, and threaten above-ground energy facilities and transmission lines,” Craighead added. “Without critical maintenance and modernization of these systems, everything from freight and commuter routes to our region’s overall economic value as a net distributor of electricity could be jeopardized.”

With national infrastructure needs expected to top $2 trillion by 2025, Craighead urged lawmakers at all levels of government to incorporate climate-related considerations into both public policy and future project planning. She further encouraged lawmakers to commit to sustainable infrastructure funding to support these needed changes, as this estimate does not account for future climate change needs.

The study offers a range of recommendations – some of which have been adopted in a few states – to deal with potential climate impacts. These include limits on development in low-lying areas that have already experienced storm-related damage, updating heat and rainfall standards used in the project design process, Climate Action Plans with greenhouse emissions targets, and adaptation plans with asset management programs that can help state and local governments identify at-risk systems and develop cost-effective alternatives.

“While some states are taking steps to address potential climate-related liabilities, more can and should be done across our region,” Craighead concluded. “This is about making prudent planning decisions and wise investments that can meet our long-term infrastructure needs and protect our economy.”