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Climate change will be coming at us from all angles

News that investigators examining the cause of the Malahide railway bridge collapse in Dublin are to study climate issues, especially three years of record rainfall (News), are an indication of how engineering and engineers are going to change their thinking about pretty much everything in the coming decades.

Designs, construction techniques, inspection and maintenance regimes and even the business case for new infrastructure are heading into novel territory.

Britain’s rail operator Network Rail is as interested as anyone in the outcome of the Malahide investigation and will be following the result of IarnrÓd Éireann’s inspections of all bridges and viaducts across running water. I expect Network Rail will be looking back at British Rail’s response to a spate of scour failures in the 1980s which required a lot of beefing up of buttresses.

Engineers will find an answer. But getting the question right in the first place is going to be much more tricky.

There was no room in our interview with Network Rail’s chief executive Iain Coucher to tell this tale but it’s of relevance here in terms of how engineering for climate change has come up the agenda in just a few years.

Back in 2005, Network Rail was trying to justify investing in work at Chipping Sodbury tunnel to reduce the impact of flooding. But they were looking at a one in 20 year flood event and couldn’t make the business case.

“Since then,” Coucher says, “we have had three, one in 20 year flood events. Had we known that we could have justified the work. We are having to think about climate change now.”

Network Rail’s particular problem at the moment is the effect of localised cloudbursts on the railway and there’s a £100M flood study underway to look at how to manage the effects of increased intensity of rainfall.

Answers to a climate issue become much more complicated when mixed up with concerns of population growth and food supply.

But what is encouraging is that engineers will find an answer. But getting the question right in the first place is going to be much more tricky − not least because climate change is just one of the problems ahead of us.

Food supply to feed a growing world population seems to be just as pressing, if you have seen any of George Alagiah’s Future of Food documentary series on BBC Two. The threat of a world gone to war within 30 years to find something to eat seems much more immediate than the threat of a world burning up within 150 years.

Even in simple UK-centric terms, straightforward answers to a climate issue becomes much more complicated when mixed up with concerns of population growth and food supply. Current policies to allow low lying areas to flood rather than protect them from sea level rise make no sense at all if it means losing the UK’s most productive farmland to marsh, just as a for instance.

The engineering community will be asked more and more to resolve all the problems resulting from climate change, population growth and the search for food. Making sure it doesn’t solve just one problem or solves one and creates another is going to be the biggest challenge of all.

  • Jackie Whitelaw is NCE’s deputy editor

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