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5. Infrastructure Modernization

How will we develop and integrate new technology and modernize aging infrastructure? The geoscience community provides the knowledge, experience and ingenuity to meet society's demands for natural resources, environmental quality and resilience from hazards. Here we outline the critical infrastructure modernization needs of the nation and the world at the outset of the twenty first century and provide policy guidance to grow the economy while sustaining the Earth system.

What Is The Need?
What Are The Policy Recommendations?
Additional Resources
What Is The Need?

Infrastructure in the United States faces increasing demand by a growing, more mobile and more interconnected population. According to the Department of Transportation, since 1980, vehicle traffic has nearly doubled, air passenger-miles have increased by 150 percent and railroad freight traffic has increased by 80 percent.  The nation’s energy infrastructure, from pipelines to electrical grids, is having trouble keeping up with demand and the nation’s burgeoning telecommunications infrastructure, from fiber optics to satellites, has become more central to economic growth and emergency management.

Much of the infrastructure that provides critical lifelines is aging and in need of repair while some is new technology that requires integration with existing systems. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s infrastructure an overall grade of “D” in 2005 and noted that an investment of $1.6 trillion by 2010 is needed to improve existing infrastructure. Infrastructure is also affected by climate change, weather, hazards, and chemical and mechanical erosion beyond the normal wear and tear of repeated use.

The largest and oldest levee systems in the U.S. along the Mississippi River (Figure 6) and the Central Valley of California are critical to the economic growth and resource management of the nation. These systems were primarily built to protect agriculture but now protect or put at risk billions of dollars of commercial trade, developed and populated communities and critical natural resources. The potential for additional catastrophic failures beyond the after effects of Hurricane Katrina (Figure 7) are significant because of the higher risk for earthquakes, floods and hurricanes in these regions, the aging infrastructure and the unknown effects of climate change. Much more work and funding is needed to understand the effects of natural hazards, problems with ground subsidence and soil conditions, the effects on ecosystems and the effects of water control on the health and maintenance of these systems. Geoscientists and geotechnical engineers play a critical role in the siting and design of infrastructure to increase its resilience to natural hazards and minimize its impact on the natural environment.


Figure 6: The Mississippi River has the third largest drainage basin in the world, exceeded in size only by the watersheds of the Amazon and Congo Rivers. It drains 41 percent of the 48 contiguous states. The basin covers more than 1,245,000 square miles, includes all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces. The Flood Control Act of 1928 authorized the Mississippi River and Tributaries (MR&T) Project, the nation's first comprehensive flood control and navigation act. Figure and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers web page -


Figure 7: Relief map of New Orleans metropolitan area indicating the extensive flooding as a result of Hurricane Katrina. In general, areas colored light and dark blue as well as magenta were flooded. Significant investments must be made to rebuild and strengthen the infrastructure of particularly vulnerable regions. The figure is courtesy of the Louisiana Geological Survey and is from “Geology and Hurricane-Protection Strategies in the Greater New Orleans Area, 2006.”

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What Are The Policy Recommendations?

Infrastructure: Given the critical need to modernize aging infrastructure and build new infrastructure, the geoscience community suggests the following national policy directions.

  • Assess infrastructure needs for the next 10, 50 and 100 years to provide a useful short-term and long-term outlook for planning purposes.
  • Assess the interdependence of infrastructure and risks through research, monitoring, data collection, modeling and analysis.
  • Support an independent review of large U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ projects as required by the Water Resources Development Act of 2007.
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Additional Resources

Links to references, supplementary, and/or updated information.

Full Report (PDF)

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With a burgeoning human population, rising demand for natural resources and a changing climate, it is critical to more fully integrate Earth observations and Earth system understanding into actions for a sustainable world.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted on July 7, 2009; Last Updated on September 22, 2009


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