Fossil fuel transportation by rail, already beleaguered by a series of disasters, could actually see things get worse thanks to the very climate change it’s helping to drive: as temperatures increase, rail tracks are more likely to warp, leading to more derailments.
While the storms and floods and such that come with climate change threaten the United States’ infrastructure in a variety of ways, bouts of extreme heat in particular can cause the metal rails in train tracks to bend and buckle, according to a new report from Climate Central. Experts refer to them as “sun kinks,” and they occur when the heat causes the metal to expand sufficiently that the structure of the tracks can’t take it, and the rails warp. It’s a phenomenon that’s caused an estimated 2,100 train derailments in the country over the last forty years, averaging about 50 derailments annually.
In fact, with 2012 delivering the hottest year the continental U.S. has ever seen, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released a safety advisory on sun kinks specifically, and pointed to four major train derailments caused by sun kinks in just a two week span.
Virginia Burkett, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist and co-author of a study on how climate change could affect transportation infrastructure in the Gulf Coast, told Climate Central that even a 2–3°F rise in temperatures in the region could significantly increase sun kinks. And according to the latest assessments of the science, failure to curb humanity’s carbon emissions could drive U.S. temperatures an average of 9°F by 2100.
“Yes, you would anticipate more widespread or frequent incidents of track buckling as the temperature rises,” Burkett said.
The problem for fossil fuel transport comes in because the arrival of hydraulic fracturing has opened up a bonanza of crude oil production in North America, and much of it is being shipped around the continent by rail. Climate Central cited data from the Association of American Railroads that rail shipments of crude oil massively jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2009 to almost 400,000 carloads in 2013. That same year saw a string of train wrecks and explosions, as cars carrying oil derailed in Minnesota, Virginia, Alabama, Nevada, and several places in Canada. And the oil boom in the Bakken shale — which covers a good chunk of North Dakota, some of Montana, and on into Canada — has produced a form of crude that’s especially flammable, leading to several unexpected rail car explosions over the last few months.
Even when there’s no explosion, there can still be spills, with all the attendant threats to ecological, animal, and human health. Federal regulators have already reported that more oil was spilled from rail cars in 2013 than over the last forty years combined.
Setting aside the oil transportation problem, U.S. train passengers are also threatened by extreme heat’s effect on the rail infrastructure: ridership increased 55 percent from 1997 to 2012 — according to the Brookings Institution — and freight traffic on rail lines is likely to rise 40 percent by 2040.
The potential good news, as Climate Central notes, is that sun kinks are in a race with improvements in safety requirements and methodology, and sun-kink-related derailments dropped from 46 in 2011 to 29 in 2012, and then to 14 in 2013.