Resilient Infrastructure

Oct. 2, 2023
How digital twins protect roads and bridges against climate change

By Dustin Parkman, Contributing Author

The United States spends $20 billion annually on devastation from climate change. By 2050, these costs are estimated to reach between $150 billion and $450 billion each year.

Most of this money will be aimed at rebuilding infrastructure, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. That’s why we need to make resiliency a top priority for our roads and bridges.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) defines climate resiliency as “the ability of an infrastructure system to adapt to and withstand various climate-related stressors.” These stressors include extreme temperatures, violent storms, floods, drought, and wildfires, which have increased in frequency and intensity. Aging infrastructure fails to keep pace with this new, unpredictable normal, which is a result of climate change.

We can invest in and utilize digital technology that will model solutions to harden our infrastructure against future hits from Mother Nature, like the flash floods in Kentucky that killed 16 people last year.

Digital technology can provide the resiliency roadmap that lets us analyze and model how our highways, electrical grids, buildings, and more should best respond to these events based on data from past, present, and even future scenarios.

The Texas power grid failure of 2021 demonstrates how quickly things can go wrong when systems can’t keep up with climate change. Plunging temperatures caused residents to turn up the heat, which maxed out power grid capacity and set a dangerous chain of events in motion. Digital technology can help us understand, forecast, and mitigate climate risk threatening infrastructure by leveraging a digital twin.

A digital twin is a 3D digital representation of something in the physical environment that is continuously updated with real-time data from that physical environment. Digital twins track and visualize real-world conditions through Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices like drones and sensors that capture detailed data from water, weather, and materials.

As the data comes in, engineers use the digital twin to create a more resilient version of the infrastructure. They can create and evaluate “what if” scenarios before an event happens, and the resilient designs can help reduce carbon footprint by using low-carbon materials and consuming fewer resources.

As state and private organizations submit resilient infrastructure plans and seek design approvals, these digital models provide transparency to the public and stakeholders who can understand 3D digital models better than 2D paper plans.

Organizations that don’t have access to resources can apply for digital technology funding thanks to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Infrastructure Reduction Act, which includes $2.3 billion in funding alone for expanding flood control. Flood modeling and simulation technology helps cities that experience heavy rainfall, flooding, and sea water rise to mitigate risk and achieve their resilience goals for vulnerable infrastructure like electricity substations, telecommunications services, and roadways.

The effects of climate change can take its toll on bridges. Storm surges from hurricanes are lifting bridge decks off their supports, while increasing precipitation, humidity, and higher carbon concentration are speeding up the deterioration of materials used to build these vital structures.

More than 220,000 bridges in the U.S. need major repair work or should be replaced, according to a 2021 report by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. The report estimated that it will take roughly 40 years to repair the country’s 45,000 structurally deficient bridges at the current pace of work.

States like Texas and New York are using digital technology and digital twins to speed up the process for bridge inspection, real-time structural health monitoring, design, and construction.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has gone completely digital with its recently launched Bridge Digital Delivery Initiative that helps accelerate project workflow, from concept to 3D model to construction.

Earlier this year, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) completed a project using digital twins to assess and replace the 138th Street bridge in the Bronx – a project that involved complicated structural design and coordination in a congested area. By using digital twins for their designs, both TxDOT and NYSDOT now have the necessary tools to future-proof their projects, which can lead to better resiliency.

More states will be able to invest in bridge repair using the IIJA’s new Bridge Investment Program (BIP), which provides $12.5 billion over the next five years for repair, rehabilitation, and replacement projects. This is in addition to the $27 billion in bridge funding via the Bridge Formula Program.

Climate change impacts are increasingly being felt and are concentrated in urban areas, which are expected to grow by two and a half times by 2050. As this demand for resilient infrastructure grows, we will see more adoption of digital twin technology to support an increasing number of smart cities, as well as the power grids, highways, bridges, and seaports that connect them all to keep our world moving forward. 

The transparency and predictability offered by digital technology is critical to visualizing and understanding what we are doing right to get ahead of climate change and where we need to improve in our attempts to make our infrastructure more resilient for current and future generations. R&B

Dustin Parkman is the vice president of mobility at Bentley Systems.

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