California Climate Adaptation Strategy - Energy and Transportation Infrastructure

Chapter X of the 2009 California Climate Adaptation Strategy (CAS) summarizes projected climate change impacts to transportation and energy infrastructure in the state, and recommends adaptation strategies to address those impacts. California’s extensive infrastructure system will likely be subject to climate change-related impacts from higher temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns, sea-level rise, and extreme weather events. To adapt to these impacts, the CAS recommends four adaptation strategies for transportation infrastructure: develop a climate vulnerability assessment; incorporate climate change into existing investment decisions; develop design standards to minimize risks; and incorporate climate change considerations into disaster preparedness planning. The CAS analyzed impacts anticipated for the state across seven sectors; this case study will focus on the portions of the strategy addressing transportation.

The summary of climate change impacts on the transportation sector is based primarily on two 2009 research reports by the California Energy Commission’s Public Interest Energy Research program: The Impacts of Sea Level Rise on the California Coast and Climate Change Scenarios and Sea Level Rise Estimates for the California 2008 Climate Change Scenarios Assessment. The CAS profiles the most significant climate-related impacts to California’s infrastructure. Temperature impacts on the transportation sector will come from more frequent extreme heat days, including prolonged periods of heat, which are expected to increase buckling of highways and tracks. Precipitation changes are expected to cause increased damage to infrastructure from flooding and mudslides and landslides. Sea-level rise, particularly in combination with extreme storm events, may impact an estimated 2,500 miles of roads and railroads at risk of coastal flooding (based upon projections of 55-inches of sea-level rise).

The CAS presents four general strategies for adapting transportation assets, and lists both near-term and long-term actions to implement the strategies:

  • Strategy 5: “Develop a detailed climate vulnerability assessment and adaptation plan for California’s transportation infrastructure.” Actions to implement this strategy include the development of a climate vulnerability plan for California’s infrastructure, as well as development of a transportation use “hot spot” map to identify the locations most vulnerable to climate impacts. An April 2013 report, Caltrans Activities to Address Climate Change, states that the agency’s GIS Engineering Services is conducting a GIS-based assessment of transportation infrastructure vulnerabilities to identify critical vulnerability hot spots. As part of the project, Caltrans will develop a vulnerability assessment and framework for prioritizing its implementation efforts, using data from the National Academy of Sciences report 'Sea-Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.' As of October 2015 the status of the “hot spot” mapping project is unclear, although Caltrans completed a climate resilience pilot project funded by the Federal Highway Administration, assessing vulnerabilities of state-owned transportation assets throughout Caltrans District 1 (in northwestern California) and developing a tool to assess adaptation strategies for vulnerable assets.
  • Strategy 6: “Incorporate climate change vulnerability assessment planning tools, policies, and strategies into existing transportation and investment decisions.” Actions to implement this strategy include development and incorporation of climate adaptation policies throughout California transportation plans (Governor’s Strategic Growth Plan and California Transportation Plan), system plans (e.g., District System Management Plan), regional transportation plans, project plans (e.g., Project Development Procedures), and programming (e.g., State Transportation Improvement Program, State Highway Operations and Protection Program).
  • Strategy 7: “Develop transportation design and engineering standards to minimize climate change risks to vulnerable transportation infrastructure.” Implementation actions for this strategy include: an assessment of whether existing transportation design standards are adequate to withstand sea level rise and extreme weather; development of buffer zone guidelines to mitigate risks to structures located within projected flood zones due to sea level rise; and assessment of the impacts of climate change on size and design requirements for stormwater quality best management practices. The 2013 Caltrans Activities to Address Climate Change report suggests that while Caltrans is not currently undertaking an effort to update statewide design and construction specifications, the agency’s engineers incorporate site-specific conditions in the design and construction projects, including expected climate conditions.
  • Strategy 8: “Incorporate climate change impact considerations into disaster preparedness planning for all transportation modes.” To implement this strategy, Caltrans intends to assess the climate impact information necessary to respond to emergencies, and to integrate climate impact information into California’s existing Intelligent Transportation Systems and Transportation Management Center operations.

The CAS was compiled in response to Governor Schwarzenegger’s 2008 Executive Order S-13-08, which directed state agencies to identify and prepare for the impacts of climate change. The California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) led the development of the CAS, convening seven sector-specific working groups, including one focused on transportation and energy infrastructure. The CAS is to be updated roughly every two and a half years; CNRA, in coordination with other agencies, released an update to the 2009 plan in July 2014. In September 2015, the California Legislature passed AB 1482, which will now require CNRA to update the adaptation strategy every 3 years, starting in 2017.


This Adaptation Clearinghouse entry was prepared with support from the Federal Highway Administration.  This entry was last updated on June 30, 2016.


Publication Date: December 2009

Related Organizations:

  • California Department of Transportation (Caltrans)
  • California Natural Resources Agency


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Adaptation plan

States Affected:


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