Climate change increasing heat in Britain
Climate change is accelerating the outbreak of heat in the UK, which is a prosperous country with the capacity and resources to adapt to warmer temperatures. Still, little has been done over the past ten years to reduce the increased risk of overheating in buildings and critical infrastructure. The country is unprepared to handle sustained temperatures above 38 °C for long periods of time, which are more common in Mediterranean countries.
There are thousands of miles of steel track in railways across the UK. Steel has a high thermal conductivity, which means it can absorb and transfer heat much more rapidly than other building materials, and can be up to 20 °C hotter than the temperature of the surrounding air. . Steel tracks lengthen in the heat, exerting force against the base and sides of the track. When there is no room to expand, it can deteriorate, which can take a few days to repair, disrupting the rail system. In hot European countries, including Spain and France, the steel used in rail lines is usually prepared differently before and during construction. For example, different alloys are used, or steel is fabricated differently so that it can more effectively withstand heat stress once applied.
Rail overhead electric line may fail
About 40% of the British Rail network is electrified, using both overhead lines and conductor rail. Power lines can fail in hot weather, so trains are ordered to travel very slowly to prevent fires in power lines. In slow travel, the force is also less, which reduces the chances of the track moving. Thankfully, modern overhead lines are less affected by hot weather because they have auto-tension systems with springs or balance weights that adjust to varying temperatures. Older overhead power lines still have fixed tension connectors for trains and are more likely to wear out if they overheat – these will need to be replaced so that the rail network will continue to function smoothly in future overheating.
Water pipes do not burst or break during the colder months of the year. As homes consume more water in hot weather, the water pressure in underground pipes increases. Meanwhile, the material connecting water pipes can dry out and weaken their grip, causing water pipes to vibrate, especially near bends, joints, and connectors. When accompanied by high temperatures and UV rays on exposed parts of the pipe network, pipes can burst.
Risk of bursting of water supply pipes
Poorly maintained water pipes can break when exposed to prolonged hot temperatures, fluctuating pressure loads and inconsistent precipitation. Vulnerable parts of pipelines are usually covered and insulated with polyethylene. This ensures that damage from overheating is limited, but more research is needed to make water features more usable and robust.
Hot weather can cause major problems for networks that generate and distribute electricity. Power transmission cables in the UK are often coated with aluminum or rubber, which are susceptible to expansion in the heat. The poles are typically encased in glass and ceramic – better insulators that prevent structures from conducting electricity. However, these are too expensive to cover the vast lengths of transmission cables. Power utilities will need to research alternative materials to help the ductility of wiring and electricity to withstand high temperature variations.
Electric wires can melt due to heat
The UK can also install conductors capable of operating in hot conditions and form long power line poles. The same happens with the transmission cables of trains. Power lines expand and loosen under extreme temperatures, increasing resistance and reducing their efficiency. A sharp drop in efficiency can shut down power plants and cause people to face black outs. Creating a net zero country demands not only a transition to zero-carbon technologies, but also the adoption of existing infrastructure to meet the challenges of climate change. An economy capable of slowing and eventually reversing global warming can only emerge if we adapt what is already there for the inevitable impacts to come.
Kiran Tota-Maharaj, Reader in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Aston University
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