As the Army Corps of Engineers grapples with how climate change—with its warming temperatures, higher sea levels and more heavy storms—will affect its $250 billion in civil-works infrastructure, it is following a basic outline, says the Army Chief of Engineers, Lt. Gen.Thomas Bostick,
Bostick told reporters at a Nov. 13 briefing, "A fundamental tenet of our approach is to embrace the uncertainty posed by climate change and to find opportunities to reduce vulnerability and improve resilience."
The Corps' blueprint is its Climate Change Adaptation Plan, released on Oct. 31 as part of the Obama administration's rollout of agencies' efforts to deal with climate change.
Bostick said that, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program's most recent climate assessment, issued in May, "Climate change is happening now. The U.S. is warming. Global sea level...is rising. And some types of extreme weather events are certainly becoming more and more frequent and severe."
The current effort comes after such pivotal events as the devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the Corps' major role in rebuilding from those disasters.
At the briefing, held at the Corps' Washington, D.C., headquarters, Bostick said: "We're translating science into policy. We're adapting new infrastructure to withstand changes in climate. And we're looking at our existing infrastructure to see where it is vulnerable to changing climate and the steps that we must take in order to make it more resilient."
He described "the cycle of resilience" as having four elements: "Anticipate, prepare, respond and adapt."
Environmental groups for years have criticized the Corps for relying too heavily on "constructed" solutions to problems in areas such as flood control.
But Bostick said that adapting to climate change "does not necessarily mean building infrastructure bigger, higher or stronger." He added, "There can be creative combinations of natural and nature-based approaches than can help address how we adapt to climate change."
An important upcoming Corps action is a comprehensive report on the Northeast coastal area's flood risk and vulnerabilities, due to be sent to Congress in January.
The impetus for the report was Hurricane Sandy, which battered the Mid Atlantic region, especially New Jersey and New York. Congress provided $20 million for the study in a $50.5-billion post-Sandy supplemental spending bill that was signed into law on Jan. 29, 2013.
The report's focus includes the 31,000 miles of coast under the purview of the Corps' North Atlantic Division, headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y. Bostick said the study also will be of use in other parts of the U.S., too, as well as in other countries.
In all, the 2013 spending measure included more than $5 billion for Corps civil-works projects and programs in the Sandy-affected region. Bostick said, "We're doing really well in post-Sandy recovery."
Bostick noted that the Corps provides a monthly update at the White House about the Sandy rebuilding program. At the most recent briefing, in early November, the Corps reported that 26 of 33 planned flood control and coastal projects and 94 of 144 operation and maintenance projects are complete.
Bostick acknowledges, "We've got some issues in places—no question. We've been delayed in some areas—no question. But it's moving along."
Around the U.S., the Corps has launched 15 pilot programs to try to find answers to specific climate-relate issues that affect its infrastructure. [See Climate Change Adaptation Plan Appendix D, pp. 52-53.]
Some pilots look at broad watershed-based approach, such as a program to determine strategies for climate mitigation and adaptation by working with the Ohio River Basin Alliance. That basin covers parts of about a dozen states.
Others have a tighter focus, such as a study of how climate conditions affect sedimentation—and the related effects on infrastructure—at Cochiti Dam and Lake in New Mexico.
Bostick said that the Corps doesn't have the answers to protecting against the effects of climate change, but added that "we have the framework—and the framework is embrace uncertainty, reduce vulnerability, increase resilience and look at these projects as more of a system."