The Policy & Practice of Climate Change & Water

Cresting Research: June 2015 Selected AGWA Reading

Bridging the gap between climate science and engineering practice

How can we balance future needs for engineered infrastructure with the risks posed by the effects of climate change on long-term engineering projects? How do engineers plan for the likely effects of climate change while acknowledging the uncertain nature of when, where, and how they will manifest? The second installment of “Cresting Research” (AGWA’s research spotlight) will focus on the technical requirements and civil engineering challenges raised by adaptation to a changing climate.

Adapting Infrastructure and Civil Engineering Practice to a Changing Climate
Committee on Adaptation to a Changing Climate; Edited by J. Rolf Olsen, Ph.D.
American Society of Civil Engineers


Civil engineers face a very real and very significant challenge due to climate change. Infrastructure projects are designed to last decades, if not centuries. Due to the long lifetime of these projects and their sensitivity to the effects of changing climates and changing water cycles, civil engineers must learn how to incorporate climate adaptation into their planning and management processes. They must work to minimize the risks brought about by changing climates.

Climate scientists use Global Climate Models (GCMs) to make quantitative projections of future global and regional climates. However, GCMs do not eliminate uncertainty. Often they even underestimate climate extremes, which are used as a key reference point in engineering design. Since engineering design is usually focused on the regional and local levels, it is particularly important to minimize uncertainty at these scales. Unfortunately, uncertainty is highest at these levels when using downscaling techniques and regional modeling.

As the authors write, “The requirement that engineering infrastructure meets future needs and the uncertainty of future climate at the scale of the majority of engineering projects leads to a dilemma for practicing engineers. This dilemma is a gap between climate science and engineering practice that must be bridged.”

*AGWA is a partner to the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ Institute of Water Resources that helped lead this effort. The editor, Dr. J. Rolf Olsen is active in AGWA. Dr. Olsen and Dr. Eugene Stakhiv (a lead author and fellow AGWA member) were active in preparing this document.

Top-down vs bottom-up diagram
A comparison of top-down and bottom-up approaches to climate change adaptation.

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