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William McQuillen, 13, from Valley Park, uses a bicycle to navigate Highway 141 north of the Interstate 44 junction in Valley Park, Mo. in 2008, flooding in the area rendered some roads impassable to commuters. John L. White / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Missouri: Climate extremes mean challenges for infrastructure

New extremes are testing roads, bridges, dams and utilities to unprecedented degrees, even as they age beyond their intended lifespan.

OLD MONROE, Mo. — Less than an hour north of St. Louis, Missouri Highway 79 has dealt with a range of complications and closures from major flooding in recent years. But even when the nearby Mississippi River is calm, the roadway can’t catch a break from the elements — something illustrated this summer, when punishing heat caused its pavement to buckle, creating a bump that work crews had to fix.

With most of the U.S. exposed to hotter and ever more erratic climate conditions, roads like Highway 79 aren’t the only types of infrastructure pushed to their breaking points. As society confronts an increasingly unfamiliar climate, there are signs that the engineered backbones of modern civilization are at risk across the U.S.: Rising seas spoiling water supplies. Power plants idled because water from ponds and rivers, used to cool generators, is no longer as chilly as it used to be. Dams threatened by torrential rains and runoff.

New extremes are testing roads, bridges, dams and utilities to unprecedented degrees, even as they age beyond their intended lifespan.

Climate extremes are becoming more common in the region. St. Louis has seen record-high temperatures with greater frequency in recent years, according the National Weather Service — including a peak of 21 days of record-setting warmth in 2012. It’s also not getting as cold here, as shown by a rise in the number of “record-warm lows,” in which daily low temperatures register as the warmest on record for a given date. Overall, average annual temperatures in the city are now about 3 degrees warmer than they were 80 years ago.

That change — and unpredictability — matters for engineers who must take climate into account when designing infrastructure, by anticipating the range of conditions that it must withstand. But now, climate-related bell curves and bedrock assumptions are shifting beneath their feet. The same is true for infrastructure that already exists: Some of what was built decades ago now faces conditions that it wasn’t designed to withstand.

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