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Only a month into the summer, we've had an entire season's worth of extreme weather--and the nation's infrastructure is feeling the pinch.

Among some of the higher-profile incidents:

  • A US Airways commuter jet got stuck in Washington when 100-degree weather caused the runway to turn to putty.
  • A DC Metro subway train derailed on a track that had developed a kink due to the heat.
  • A Chicago-area nuclear plant had to get permission to keep operating when its cooling water rose to 102 degrees--two degrees above its permitted limit.
  • Several roads in East Texas have developed huge cracks due to shifting soil under them.

The issue?  This high heat is way, way over the design limits for steel and concrete.

According to Tom Scullion, a transportation engineer at Texas A&M, it may be about to get worse for our roads.

Highways, Mr. Scullion noted, are designed for the local climate, taking into account things like temperature and rainfall. “When you get outside of those things, man, all bets are off.” As weather patterns shift, he said, “we could have some very dramatic failures of highway systems.”
Roads aren't the only problem.  Washington's subway system is facing the unique problems of being located so close to the humidity of the South.
When railroads install tracks in cold weather, they heat the metal to a “neutral” temperature so it reaches a moderate length, and will withstand the shrinkage and growth typical for that climate. But if the heat historically seen in the South becomes normal farther north, the rails will be too long for that weather, and will have an increased tendency to kink. So railroad officials say they will begin to undertake much more frequent inspection.
Heat's not the only problem.  The recent spate of storms has utilities who never even considered burying their lines--a way of life in the North--to give serious thought to it.  For instance, Pepco, the main electric company in the DC area, rethought its stance on burial after the June 29 derecho--one of five storms in the last two years that left customers in the dark for five days or more.

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