NERC KE ERIIP Fellowship – Environmental risks to infrastructure: Identifying and filling the gaps

A wide range of infrastructure underpins our day-to-day lives, yet our intense reliance on these potentially vulnerable systems is often forgotten. Road and rail provide transport, pipelines carry energy and water, and cables transmit and distribute power and communications. Some of these networks are over 100 years old, while others involve brand new technology, but all of them have potential weaknesses to environmental hazards.

Several recent network failures caused by such natural hazards have provided a sharp wake up call. Examples include the Dawlish railway collapse due to storms in 2014, damage to homes, bridges and roads in Cumbria in 2014/15, and flooding in Somerset leading to widespread loss of power in 2013/14. These events had profound impacts on people’s lives, as well as large costs (>£Ms) to the local and UK economy. Such events may become more likely and more intense as the world continues to warm. In extreme cases, environmental hazards can have global implications. The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland, for example, caused worldwide disruptions to air traffic, yet prior to its occurrence the effects of ash on aircraft engines had not been considered a major risk. Thus, there is a need to better understand the risk posed by environmental hazards to infrastructure. This is particularly important as we experience changes in our climate, as new technology is developed, new areas are explored, and populations grow. This fellowship aims to help address this risk through identifying gaps in our knowledge and assessing how future research can fill them. Importantly, this fellowship is supported by several industry organisations that are directly involved in assessing the risk posed by natural hazards to a wide range of infrastructure. The proposed work will involve time spent with those specialists, to understand the potential impacts, lessons learned, and how ongoing and future research can make real changes and improvements to assessing environmental risk. First, the fellowship will determine whether industry has missed any key hazards, such as the Icelandic ash cloud and its impact on air travel. An inventory of potential hazards will be compiled and assessed by a joint academic and industry panel. This may include new hazards such as the breakage of subsea communication cables by underwater avalanches of sediment (‘turbidity currents’). Such cables transport 99% of the world’s communications including important financial data and the internet. Extreme events are difficult to predict as we have not typically experienced many (if any) since accurate records have been kept. Despite this, they can be the most damaging events. The fellowship will explore different techniques and tools for predicting and assessing extreme hazards such as developing new statistical methods that are more often used in medicine or financial studies. Such tools will need to include the effects of future climate change. Often, individual large events may not damage infrastructure, but the combined or successive effect of smaller natural hazards may be catastrophic. Here, it is proposed to summarise the lessons learned from a number of infrastructure owners, consultants and contractors to understand how we can better understand compound or cumulative impacts, and how that can inform the development of models in future. In the same way as you go to the doctor to get a health check, it is important to understand the health of infrastructure. Historically this has been done by in-person inspections, but step changes in technology now enable remote and real-time monitoring. New technologies that can be used to monitor natural hazards and their impact on infrastructure will be summarised. Groups of researchers and industry representatives will be paired up to see how we can define best practice for industry in real-time monitoring of environmental hazards and increase cost-effectiveness of such efforts.

Grant reference
Natural Environment Research Council
Total awarded
£236,543 GBP
Start date
30 Jun 2016
2 years 11 months 29 days
End date
29 Jun 2019