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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Flooded highways, railroads and airport runways are among the transportation snarls looming as the world's climate changes, and officials should plan with this in mind, a U.S. study says.
Modern transportation that runs on fossil fuel has been singled out as a key cause of climate change but the study released on Tuesday by the National Research Council said most transport also is vulnerable to the effects of global warming.
"We're not just concerned about gradual changes in temperatures," said Henry Schwartz, who chaired the panel that wrote the report. "We're mostly concerned about the extremes, the surprises that may come forth.
"We believe ... that the time to begin to address this issue as a routine part of design and operations is now," he told reporters in a telephone briefing.
Specifically, an expected rise in sea levels would hit roads, pipelines and airports in U.S. coastal areas where population is concentrated, Schwartz said.
"As seas rise, plus storm surges, the impacts (to transportation) can be much more severe and extend greater inland than anything we've experienced heretofore," he said.
Schwartz said some the busiest U.S. airports, including New York City's LaGuardia Airport, are in low-laying coastal zones that are vulnerable to flooding from rising seas.
In addition to sea-level rise -- projected to be 7 to 23 inches this century -- other effects of climate change also could hit transportation hard, the report said.
These include an increase in extremely hot days and heat waves, which would affect thermal expansion joints on bridges and cause more rapid degradation of pavement surfaces. Railroad tracks can become deformed in extreme heat and road asphalt can soften.
There also could be limits on constructive activity on transportation projects due to health and safety concerns.
Arctic warming is likely to thaw the permanently frozen ground called permafrost, which means transportation built on it would subside. This includes roads, rail beds, runway foundations, bridge supports and pipelines, such as those that carry petroleum products across Alaska.
On the plus side, the report said there could be a longer transport season and more ice-free ports in northern regions, and the long-sought Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific could become more available. Arctic ice melt opened this passage last year for the first time in memory.
The expected increase in intense precipitation could cause more weather-related delays and traffic disruptions, including the flooding of evacuation routes.
More frequent strong hurricanes also are expected to be a consequence of rising global temperatures, and these could cause more frequent interruptions of air service, more frequent emergency evacuations and more debris on roads and rail lines.
These strong storms increase the probability of infrastructure failures. Wave damage and storm surges could have an impact on harbors and ports.
Editing by Bill Trott