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How does climate change affect vital national infrastructure?

By Newcastle University
Railroad with summer rural industrial landscape at the background

In this COP27 article, Professor Stephanie Glendinning, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Science, Agriculture & Engineering, provides an update a year on from COP26, on the continuing research into the effect of climate change on the performance of vital national infrastructure. . Learn how our research collaboration is helping to mitigate these impacts.

What are vital national infrastructure assets?

Our research investigates the effect of climate change on the performance of vital national infrastructure assets. These include road and railway slopes, flood protection structures and pipeline bedding.

Infrastructure is fundamental to our economy and society. It is one of the 10 pillars of the UK’s Industrial Strategy.

Long linear assets (LLAs) are major components of this infrastructure. They are fundamental to delivering critical services over long distances. Roads, railways, pipelines and flood protection structures are key to our continued prosperity.

Asset failure is commonplace, with a high cost of failure, and vulnerability to these failures is significant. Unanticipated failures cause severe disruption and damage to reputation.

Current approaches to design and asset management perpetuate this situation. They are based on past experience and cannot be extrapolated to future performance.


How is our research connected to climate change? 

Climate change is one of the factors driving this future change. We need new robust process models, rather than historical empirical assessments. We have to assess the current condition of these long linear geotechnical assets. We need to prioritise critical slopes and plan cost-effective operations and future management schedules.

Our research is looking at how to tackle these infrastructure performance problems. This is part of the ACHILLES Programme Grant. Six universities (Newcastle, Loughborough, Durham, Southampton, Leeds, and Bath) and the British Geological Survey are taking part in the research. There is close collaboration with major infrastructure stakeholders and businesses such as Network Rail, Highways England, Environment Agency, HS2, Jacobs, and Mott MacDonald.

New connections have recently been made with overseas research organisations in The Netherlands (TU Delft plus asset owners such as Rijkswaterstaat), who have similar concerns over their assets, but different materials and physical conditions. Collaborating and learning from the different techniques and approaches to climate change and its effect on assets brings major benefits to both nations.

What challenges will the Achilles programme solve? 

The ACHILLES research programme has three major challenges to solve:

  1. Deterioration processes - what causes the material to degrade? This is at the scale of the material that the asset is made from, i.e. the soil, ground. It is at this material scale that many asset owners need help. They need to better understand what is driving the degradation of their assets.
  2.  Asset performance – how does the asset perform with these changes in the geotechnical performance of the material? This is an asset-scale problem and is one that the owners can appreciate. The performance or failure of their assets is most visible to them and the public.

  3. Forecasting and decision support - making better predictions of what will fail and when. Is it better to intervene early and maintain, or can the asset last a bit longer and still remain serviceable? This ties into the wider performance of groups of assets delivering an overall service. It gives holistic understanding at a network scale.

The research involves a wide range of activities grouped into four themes:

  • Simulation and modelling;
  • Monitoring and measurement;
  • Performance and deterioration;
  • Design and decisions.


What are we hoping to achieve?

Our research is already collecting field and laboratory evidence (data) about the deterioration of long linear assets and the materials from which they are formed. This data is then used in our numerical simulations and statistical analyses of asset deterioration at the material, asset and network scales.

Continuing our development of improved simulations and design tools is an activity that directly achieves better outcomes and understanding. These simulations and tools forecast the deterioration of long linear assets and which explore mitigation options to extend their working life.

We have engaged with asset owners and their support organisations to develop a decision-making framework to help manage their ageing, long linear assets. A key aspect for the owners is the business case for the prioritisation and timing of interventions, whist accounting for uncertainty and variability in asset condition.


Why is this research so important?

Our research is important for:

  • The general public as the end-users or beneficiaries of the infrastructure;
  • Consultants and contractors who actively maintain assets;
  • Asset owners and operators.

The key outcomes will be improved infrastructure performance and safety, along with reduced costs associated with infrastructure deterioration and failures.

We have made important advances in understanding material and asset deterioration. We learned how to measure, model and predict changes in asset condition due to ageing and weather-driven effects.

We developed new computer-based models to account for asset deterioration. We came up with new design tools that account for deterioration and can assess mitigation options from material to asset scale.

These models and tools all contribute to important decision-making frameworks, co-produced with stakeholders. They will help prioritise spending on design, monitoring and interventions on the assets. These frameworks will also be vital for justifying the business case for the actions required.


COP26 provides a focal point for collective action on climate change. In our COP26 blog series, you can find out about some of the many projects related to climate change going on in the University and our wider community.


 About Professor Stephanie Glendinning

Stephanie Glendinning (2)
Professor Stephanie Glendinning is Professor of Civil Engineering and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Science, Agriculture and Engineering Faculty at Newcastle University.
Some of her main research interests include sustainable development, particularly in relation to cities and infrastructure, and adapting infrastructure to climate change. 
Professor Stephanie Glendinning leads major infrastructure, academic, and technical projects across the University.



Tags: One Planet, COP27, Sustainable Development