Responding to Climate Change in New York State: ClimAID – Transportation Chapter

This state-level assessment provides information on New York's vulnerability to climate change and is specifically designed to assist in the development of adaptation strategies. The goal of the Integrated Assessment for Effective Climate Change Adaptation Strategies in New York State (ClimAID) is to provide decision-makers with progressive information on climate change effects on the state, and to facilitate adaptation planning. The ClimAID report reviews climate change impacts and adaptation options for eight sectors in New York including water resources, coastal zones, ecosystems, agriculture, energy, transportation, public health and telecommunications. This case study focuses on the transportation chapter.

To assess the state’s vulnerability, climate change scenarios were developed based on results from the North American Regional Climate Change Assessment Program (NARCCAP), global, and regional climate model simulations. A set of climate change projections was developed for the state as a whole and for seven climate regions within the state. Model-based probabilities of the future occurrence of extreme weather events were also developed, with associated confidence levels based on those employed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report. For sea-level rise, projections for New York State’s coastal area were based on global climate models and a “rapid ice-melt scenario.” Since the ClimAID report’s release in 2011, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) developed updated climate projections for the state, and produced the report Climate Change in New York State: Updating the 2011 ClimAID Climate Risk Information (the 2014 Update). The 2014 Update uses higher-resolution climate models from the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), as well as newer emissions scenarios from AR5.

The Transportation chapter provides an overview of the vulnerabilities of New York State’s transportation system to climate change, and presents adaptation options to improve the system’s resilience. The chapter addresses all transportation modes: highways and bridges, county and local roads, railways, aviation, shipping, and mass transit. It examines the potential impacts on these assets from several climate hazards: increased temperature and heat waves, precipitation, and sea-level rise and storm surge hazards. Among the key adaptation strategies discussed are:

  • A full inventory of transportation infrastructure at risk from climate change hazards and systematic assessment of vulnerabilities. 
  • A technical and fiscal evaluation of adaptation options and their local, regional, social, and environmental implications, to allow flexible implementation.
  • Institutionalization of scientifically based monitoring and decision support systems.
  • Regular reassessment until full consideration of climate change effects are embedded in infrastructure planning and decision-making.

Other suggested large-scale adaptations for the transportation sector include:

  • Raising coastal structures or rights of way, such as elevated commuter rail tracks, or relocating out of new and future flood zones. 
  • Designing road and rail embankments as super-levees that provide flood protection as well as transportation corridors; strengthening embankment slopes to be more resilient to erosion.
  • Raising bridge landings along shorelines to ensure sufficient clearance above the transportation systems they cross over, such as highways, roads, and rail systems, given the potential need to raise the lower systems due to sea-level rise and storm surge.
  • Confirming that current road surfacing and rail track materials are capable of withstanding more extreme heat conditions.
  • Upgrading air conditioning systems on rolling stock, such as trains, subways, and buses.
  • Inspecting bridge expansion joints and ensuring adequate bridge clearances if bridges sag during extreme heat; imposing new height limitations for ships if necessary.
  • Increasing carrying capacities of culverts and drainage systems in accordance with future precipitation projections.
  • Reducing runoff from nearby properties onto transportation systems, through permeable surfaces, retention basins, restoring marshlands, increasing sewer and pumping capacities, and regrading slopes.

The chapter also suggests numerous opportunities for cooperation; intrastate cooperation among state and local agencies such as the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), Metro Transportation Authority, and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; national cooperation between New York State and the federal government for resource-intensive challenges, flood zoning assistance, and data needs; and regional cooperation with nearby states. The chapter also lists the knowledge gaps in New York State, such as LiDAR surveys of expected future flood zones and updated region-specific climate information.

Finally, the chapter presents a detailed case study of coastal storm impacts on transportation in the New York Metropolitan Region. The case study examines the impact of a 100-year coastal storm under current sea level and two sea-level rise scenarios, and provides suggestions for adapting to those impacts. Over the short term (the next 20 years), the report recommends measures such as individual floodgates, levees, and pumps. The report recommends medium-term engineering measures such as system or site-specific protection for each station or rail track segment, and region-wide protective measures such as estuary-wide storm barriers. Also recommended are long-term measures such as changing land use and providing retreat options. The case study identifies the need for vulnerability assessments of transportation systems and major knowledge gaps concerning terrain elevation modeling, infrastructure elevations, and economic modeling of the relationship between transportation system outages and overall economic losses.

Generally, the ClimAID report identifies the climate risks, vulnerabilities, and adaptation strategies across all sectors in the state. Case studies are used to illustrate the linkages among these climate impacts and adaptation, and demonstrating specific monitoring needs. Equity and environmental justice are addressed; the report states that climate change vulnerabilities and capacities to adapt are uneven across regions, individuals, and social groups. Particularly vulnerable social groups, as well as the risks to other species and ecosystems, are described for each sector. A detailed economic assessment, regarding the monetary costs of climate change impacts and related adaptation measures, is provided for a case study in each sector also.

The ClimAID report includes recommendations for potential actions that can be taken by policymakers, managers, and researchers, to help make New York more resilient to climate risk. The assessment advocates the need for increased scientific and technical capabilities to be integrated in adaptation strategies that involve the developing economy and infrastructure of the state. More consistent interaction between scientists and policymakers - to ensure that science better informs policy - is also encouraged for all adaptation planning for New York.

ClimAID was initiated in 2008 and funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) as part of its Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation, and Protection Program (EMEP). This report was prepared for NYSERDA by an author team composed of research scientists from Columbia University, the City University of New York, and Cornell University - specialists in climate change science, impacts, and adaptation.


This Adaptation Clearinghouse entry was prepared with support  from the Federal Highway Administration. This entry was last updated on January 21, 2016.

Publication Date: November 2011

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