I remember my great-grandfather, a retired ironworker from local 40, telling me it all started happening about 120 years ago, back in the summer of 2013, when he was in his early 20s. He said the world leaders had been discussing global warming for a number of years, maybe as early as the 1970s.
Although there were some strides over the decades to protect the fragile ozone layer, the efforts were too little too late. That summer, there was a severe heat wave, with 100-degree days on the East Coast for nearly a week.
Yup, they called it a heat wave, which the scientists and newscasters would attribute to a quirk in nature due to high-pressure systems strengthening and remaining over the area for some time. They didn’t stress that global warming was the culprit behind extreme weather conditions, and they easily dismissed heat waves.
Sure, there were other hot periods throughout history, but not quite like this. The searing sun caused train tracks to warp due to thermal expansion, resulting in cargo and passenger trains like Amtrak forced to slow down. Roads such as the Oley Turnpike in Pennsylvania and I-15 in Utah buckled with the heat.
My grandfather explained that the roads did, indeed, have expansion joints, but they could only help so much, especially after years of extreme fluctuating temperatures.
Even the airports were not exempt—the Phoenix airport had to cancel flights because planes had no lift at higher temperatures. He remembered something about a Yarnell wildfire killing 19 brave firefighters in Arizona, and although it was started by a lightning strike, the fire engulfed the area as the heat wave fueled the dry trees and brittle, parched underbrush.
The few decades that followed that pivotal year saw an increase in the number of heat waves and other bizarre weather phenomena. Now, in addition to roads "warping," common terminology included "concrete bombs" due to the explosion of concrete chunks in 120-degree temperatures, as well as "rim riding," which meant that the hot asphalt paving had melted the rubber tires of motorists who had forgotten the heat of the day.
"Warblers" was another term for bridges that met the same fate as the cable-stayed Zhanjiang Bay Bridge in South China, distorted beyond repair as the radiating heat caused thermal time lags and gradients of the box girder, concrete tower and stayed cable to be distorted, unpredictable and unreliable. Construction crews and scientists tried in vain to assess and remedy the initial malformations of the bridge, but it was too late—the bridge had become a buckled, wriggled mess.
In 2045, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control replaced the term "global warming" with "galactic kindling." The panel had felt that the term global warming was too myopic, referring just to events on earth and dismissive of mankind's responsibility for this phenomenon.
Galactic kindling, which suggests that the galaxy is aflame, encompasses not only man-made changes, but also the "Milankovitch Cycle," the natural variations in the Earth's orbit and tilt that increased the planet’s ambient temperature, as well as other factors such as increased radiant heat from the sun.
With this expanded definition encompassing both controllable and uncontrollable elements, we blamed ourselves less, as more and more people forgot about what they could change and blamed things more on natural phenonema.
As humans, it is always easier to point one’s finger at someone or something else, rather than looking at what one could have done oneself. Didn't we realize we were casting blame? Or did scientists realize it was moot at this point, as the daily temperatures were at 130 degrees in the Northeast—summer, fall, winter and spring.
From the 2050s to 2090s, the government had faced many infrastructure crises. Many roads had concrete explosions on a daily basis, a third of the country's bridges had warped, and train service was reduced by half due to buckling tracks. Airports were only open at night when temperatures went down to 100 degrees and there was enough wind lift to accommodate the airplanes.
The construction industry continued to adjust as best as it could to the rapidly escalating temperatures. Crews demonstrated exemplary fortitude, creativity and an unwavering commitment to react to the current infrastructure challenges and prepare for the upcoming years of torturing heat. Products changed quickly. A new admixture was added to Portland cement products, for example, that not only cured the cement, but generated molecules of cool vapor to counter the excrutiating heat.
A new cost-effective manganese-tungsten product was developed at the heat lab at a construction materials testing site and subsequently incorporated into steel beams used in bridges and superstructures. The new beams, 85% stronger than previous steel and impervious to temperature changes, now held up to expansion problems in the sweltering sun.
And Larsen Labs took advantage of the sun, developing mini photovoltaic cooling panels for use in the construction industry and later rolled out to the masses. The panels, no bigger than a man’s hand, were capable of harvesting the sun’s energy, transforming it through miniature servo-compressors, and pumping out cool air to sooth overheated brakes, tires and engines and even provide additional climate-control for the occupants of construction equipment and passenger vehicles.
Like knights in the dragon’s lair, so were the construction workers as they battled overwhelming heat and in the end developed new construction techniques that made them the victors.
Like the renovation of the Hoover Bypass Bridge in 2130, opened for traffic back in 2011. At the time of first construction, they didn’t know how such extreme daily temperatures would take a toll on the 25-ft, cast-in-place concrete sections, nor could they imagine how the 300-ft precast/post-tensioned concrete columns supporting the roadway at either side of the arch would begin to falter and waver precariously as the steel tendons running throughout the concrete over-flexed and distorted with each passing decade.
Rather than rebuilding an entire span with new material capable of fighting the heat and at a cost of more than $13 trillion, the teams used some ingenuity to renovate the bridge, saving the owner more than $9 trillion by shaving the first 12 inches off the top of the old cast-in-place sections, putting in cooling strips, and finishing with Portland 64A, which can manage temperatures of up to 190 degrees. The post-tensioned concrete columns were protected using a recently invented technique, “sooth-wrapping,” a special reflective applied coating that adds strength and reflects damaging heat and sun without creating glare to motorists.
Reflecting at all that has gone on in the last 120 years, one may think I am pessimistic—but I am not. Reflecting on the world my great-grandfather first knew and the one I now live in—where extreme temperatures have resulted in many new terms like the "kindled highway" for the ever-present heat on our roadways—I remain an optimist. The fascinating thing about humans is that they tend to adapt to their environment, striving to do what is best whether right or wrong.
Since the beginning of time, construction has been an aspect of our lives focused on our betterment. Craftsmen like carpenters and bricklayers in the Bronze Age helped provide shelter. When steam power became prevalent in the 19th century, it provided industry with machinery to create stronger buildings.
After World War II, construction gave us the interstate highway system, providing an easier means to connect with our loved ones. Construction has helped impoverished nations worldwide become more modernized and industrialized.
The industry will continue to be a pioneer of new technologies and techniques to improve buildings, bridges, roads and highways. And it will continue to adapt to the changes in our environment, whether drastic or subtle, man-made or natural.
The highway may be aflame, but no one can extinguish the fortitude, creativity, and courage of the industry.
Mark Larsen is chief information and technology officer at Halmar International, a heavy construction firm headquartered in Nanuet, N.Y. He is a graduate of Cornell University with a dual major in agricultural engineering and pre-vet, and received his Master's in computer science at PACE University. He has had a diverse background that includes technology, marketing and management positions. Prior to joining Halmar, he worked in Rwanda, Africa, for several years. He has a wife and two teenage daughters, and enjoys outdoor activities, going to NYC, and working with children's charities in Rwanda.
To see all of the stories in ENR's Imagining Construction's Future science fiction collection, click here.