Friday, July 12, 2024

NYC’s infrastructure wasn’t built for the heat

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Consolidated Edison has been dealing with fluctuating power outages during this latest heatwave. Shown: Con Ed workers in Brooklyn Heights on Wednesday. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

The extreme heat of the past several weeks has highlighted the vulnerabilities of New York City’s infrastructure, from mass transit to bridges to the electric grid.

The structures that keep the city working around the clock — many decades old — weren’t designed for today’s longer and hotter heat waves. The most visible example was the jamming of Manhattan’s movable Third Avenue Bridge in the open position for several hours on Monday, as its metal expanded in 95-degree heat. 

The Third Avenue Bridge is just one of 24 movable bridges throughout the five boroughs.

Eleven of these bridges are in Brooklyn — five over the Gowanus Canal (Carroll Street Bridge; Hamilton Avenue Bridge; Ninth Street Bridge; Third Street Bridge and Union Street Bridge) and six over Newtown Creek and its tributaries (Borden Avenue Bridge; Grand Street Bridge; Greenpoint Avenue Bridge; Hunters Point Avenue Bridge; Metropolitan Avenue Bridge and Pulaski Bridge), according to the city’s Department of Transportation. 

It’s not just bridges that are vulnerable to the heat. Equally disruptive to travel were the major Amtrak and New Jersey Transit malfunctions along the Northeast corridor in the heat waves of late June. Amtrak President Roger Harris said in a statement on June 21 that a circuit breaker that powers the trains “experienced a catastrophic failure on one of the hottest days of the year and a serious brush fire also came close to our tracks.” 

High heat continues to affect train travel. Amtrak says that high temperatures are requiring its trains to operate at lower speeds between the hours of 12 noon and 8 p.m., resulting in delays of up to 60 minutes. Amtrak and NJT are working on a joint plan which includes increased inspections and investments. 

A Consolidated Edison logo is shown outside the building on Tuesday, July 10, 2012, in New York. Photo: Frank Franklin II/AP
A Consolidated Edison logo is shown outside the building on Tuesday, July 10, 2012, in New York. Photo: Frank Franklin II/AP

Con Edison is managing fluctuating outages 

Consolidated Edison has been dealing with fluctuating power outages during this latest heatwave, with the number of customers losing service ranging from just a handful to 900 or more, mostly in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. (A customer represents a building, home or business). The company has been getting customers back on line within the day, in most cases. 

To limit widespread outages, Con Ed has the power to systematically cut off power to targeted customers or areas. (Residents may notice their power is suddenly shut off while their next door neighbor’s power remains on.) The aim of the shutdown “is to take pressure off a specific piece of equipment, such as a cable or transformer,” Con Ed says on their website. “We will avoid shutting off power to customers who are not impacted by that equipment.” The company has been able to do this on a granular level since the installation of smart meters.

Con Edison’s 2023 Climate Change Vulnerability Study found that temperatures are rising quicker than previously projected, and heat-related resilience projects may need to be accelerated. A “plausible worst-case extreme event scenario for mid- to late-century is a 27-day heat wave with daily maximum temperatures exceeding 90°F each day,” the study states. Temperatures could even exceed 100°F, the study adds. 

The Carroll Street Bridge. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle
The Carroll Street Bridge. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle

DEC projects big increase in heat waves, storms

It may seem like ancient history, but between the years 2000 and 2004, New York state experienced an average of less than one heat wave (three or more consecutive days above 90°F) every year, according to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). By the 2050s this rate could increase to up to eight heat waves per year for some regions, DEC projects in its NYS Climate Impact Assessment.

The frequency and intensity of extreme events such as heavy rainstorms, seasonal droughts, and heat waves are also projected to increase, and sea level is expected to rise one to two feet by 2050. 

The study found that buildings, energy, transportation and water infrastructure could be vulnerable to climate hazards. Additionally, much of the state’s infrastructure “is aging and in need of repair,” which only increases its vulnerability to climate change. 

New York City has a Hazard Mitigation Plan. It suggests that transportation systems could be protected during periods of extreme heat by measures including equipment upgrades to rail systems, and retrofitting roads and bridges with heat-resistant materials to prevent cracking and buckling from thermal expansion. 

Strategies possible, but they won’t be cheap

Mona Hamadi, a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s Climate School, specializes in the hazards and vulnerabilities associated with weather-related natural disasters.

“In response to the extreme heat’s impact on NYC’s infrastructure, the city might need to adopt several adaptive strategies to ensure the safety and functionality of its transportation systems,” she told the Brooklyn Eagle on Wednesday.

“Enhanced maintenance and real-time monitoring of critical infrastructure will be crucial to manage heat-induced damages, such as rail track expansions and stress fractures on bridges. These systems can promptly detect and address overheating risks, helping prevent mechanical failures,” Hamadi said. 

“Additionally, the adoption of heat-resistant materials in construction and the installation of cooling systems like track misting could mitigate these risks. Increasing vegetation and implementing emergency response protocols during heatwaves will further protect the infrastructure,” she said.

While these adaptations are essential, they won’t come cheap, Hamadi added.

“While these measures are essential, they come with substantial costs. Initial investments for upgrades, increased maintenance costs using advanced materials, and operational expenses for cooling and emergency systems could total in the millions to billions of dollars,” she said. “However, these expenditures are fundamental to maintaining infrastructure integrity and ensuring public safety in the face of rising temperatures, ultimately preventing more costly damages and disruptions in the future.”

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