Distressed wooden desk with a typewriter on it.
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By Margaret M. Mitchell

Extreme weather and climate events — droughts and heat waves, hurricanes and floods, wildfires, and more — are some of the more troubling and devastating aspects of life on Earth, increasing in number and, some would argue, severity. Whether you believe in climate change or not, there is no denying that the economic toll alone is sobering. 

For example, since 1980, there have been 383 weather and climate disasters in the United States for which the damage “reached or exceeded $1 billion,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information. The organization estimates that these disasters have cost the U.S. $2.72 trillion (adjusted for inflation).

In 2023 alone there were 28 separate billion-dollar weather and climate events, beating the previous record of 22 in 2020, facts referenced by ASCE president Marsia Geldert-Murphey, P.E., F.ASCE, in her May/June 2024 column. The estimated total price tag for 2023’s record-breaking season: $92.9 billion.

And although the economic effects of these events are far reaching, the human cost is inestimable.

With this pattern of increasing frequency and severity firmly in place, civil engineers are often left managing the after-effects and consequences of extreme weather. But more and more, civil engineers — with their arsenal of codes and standards, evolving materials, and innovative methods of construction — are getting better at “engineering” the elements, devising ingenious solutions and designing resilient infrastructure to combat the elements before they wreak havoc.

This issue of Civil Engineering takes a look at how some are wielding their knowledge and expertise to protect our infrastructure as well as the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

In “Storm-Ready Design,” we head to southwest Florida’s Babcock Ranch, a town that prioritized hurricane-resistant design. As author Robert L. Reid states, “The planned new development was intended to be a showcase of innovation in preserving the environment, producing clean energy, promoting sustainability and resilience, and protecting people from powerful storms.” And when Hurricane Ian hit the area in September 2022, the town, still under construction, emerged relatively unscathed.

From storm-ready design we move to wildfires. Researchers at Colorado State University have developed a wildfire propagation model that “captures the fire interaction between buildings and vegetation in a network setting,” according to author Hussam Mahmoud, Ph.D., F.SEI, M.ASCE, in “Taming Fire.” Read the article to find out how this model was created and the implications it will have on infrastructure caught in the wildland-urban interface.

We pivot to flooding in “Flood Risk without Stationarity” by Gerald E. Galloway, Ph.D., P.E., BC.WRE (Hon.), Dist.M.ASCE, F.ASCE, Lewis E. Link Jr., Ph.D., and Gregory B. Baecher, Ph.D., NAE, Dist.M.ASCE. “Although floods and coastal storms are among the most destructive natural hazards, the ability to forecast and plan for such events is waning due to climate change,” the authors state. Civil engineers must themselves be resilient, finding new ways to build infrastructure that will survive extreme flooding, even as such floods become harder to predict.

Wrapping up the series is “Disaster Zone Safety” by Tom Caldwell, P.E., M.ASCE, and Lt. Col. Mike Riccitiello, P.E., PMP. Civil engineers are needed not only before a disaster but also after one, for search and rescue, repair and reconstruction, failure investigations, and more. The authors offer valuable tips on what engineers should do when they find themselves at a disaster site.

Summer is the time for much of the extreme weather in the Northern Hemisphere. Stay cool, stay dry, and stay safe! See you in September.

Margaret M. Mitchell is the editor in chief of Civil Engineering

This article first appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Civil Engineering as “Engineering for the Extremes.”