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EU projects say transport networks vulnerable to climate change

Every year, severe weather events wreak havoc on roads, railways and waterways across Europe. A number of EU-funded researcher projects are trying to understand how climate change could affect transport, and looking for ways to prepare for and mitigate the effects.

Project coordinators meet in Brussels
Inland navigation at risk
© Peter Gutierrez

"We see severe and often tragic weather-related events every year in Europe, even without climate change," says  VTTexternal link 's Pekka Leviakangas, coordinator of the EU-funded 'EWENT' project. "So we are not talking about something we have never experienced before, but the effect of climate change will likely be to increase the frequency of such events, and perhaps their intensity."

In June 2010, at least 15 people died when unprecedented flash-flooding hit parts of south-eastern France, submerging streets, sweeping away cars and forcing people to take refuge on the roofs of their houses.

Claus Doll of  Fraunhoferexternal link, coordinator of the 'Weather' project, agrees. "The effects on transport networks are often catastrophic. Coastal infrastructure is by far the most affected." Doll says storm surges, likely to increase in severity due to rising sea levels and increasing wind speeds, will pose major problems. "Also at risk will be mountain areas, because of more frequent spring floods and avalanches. Here, the removal of forests amplifies the problem."

A complex problem

While spectacular events such as storms and blizzards tend to involve increased precipitation, other types of events could be equally disruptive. "The most vulnerable mode of transport appears to be inland navigation," explains Doll. "Like roads and railways, our inland waterways are at risk from storms and floods, but they can also become impassable during droughts and hot spells."

In the autumn of 2009, inland shipping in the Netherlands was severely affected by low water levels in the Rhine river. Measured near the town of Lobith, the influx of Rhine water into the country was down to 890 cubic metres per second, as opposed to the normal quantity of up to 2000 per second.

Inland waterway transport
Project coordinators meet
in Brussels
© Peter Gutierrez

Freezing temperatures also threaten inland waterway transport, Doll adds, "So, in fact, any change in the current climatic conditions is likely to affect inland navigation."

A pan-European problem

EWENT and Weather were among a group of projects discussed in Brussels in June 2010, aimed at understanding and addressing threats to EU transport posed by climate change. "To understand the problem is the first step," explains European Commission Project Officer Karsten Krause. "But these projects will also propose measures to minimise the potential damages of such events and prepare emergency responses."

A third project, working in close coordination with EWENT and Weather, is 'Ecconet'. Project coordinator Cristophe Heyndrickx of the  Transport and Mobility Leuvenexternal link stressed the importance of working together. "As the recent flooding in Poland and Germany has shown us," he said, "severe weather events do not respect international borders, so we do need to come together across Europe to address these problems."

In May 2010, flooding along the Oder and Vistula rivers that killed at least 15 people in Poland spread into Germany, breaking levees and flooding entire villages and towns. A variety of transport infrastructure was severely affected.

Increasing severity and costs

For an idea of the expense involved in trying to combat the effects of climate change, Doll cites the huge amount of money already being spent by Dutch authorities to protect the port of Rotterdam from storm floods.

Krause says the risk assessments and 'price tags' that will be developed by projects are part of a more constructive approach and also reflect the Commission's adaptation priorities."This work is very much in line with political 'guidelines' presented to the European Parliament by Commission President Barroso in 2009."

"I intend to launch a major initiative to help the EU anticipate the changes that need to be made so that we can cope with the climate change that is already happening, at the same time as we reduce our emissions for the future. This work will involve marshalling all the necessary scientific and economic data that exists to help the EU to adapt its policies to the challenge of climate change." José Manuel Barroso