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Heat Turns Yellowstone Road to ‘Soup’

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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A tourist route in Yellowstone National Park was ordered closed this month when the road's asphalt melted during a period of warmer-than-usual temperatures.

"It basically turned the asphalt into soup," park spokesman Dan Hottle told USA Today. "It turned the gravel road into oatmeal."

Twitter / @YellowstoneNPS

Firehole Lake Drive, a 3.3-mile loop in Yellowstone National Park, was temporarily closed after part of the road's asphalt melted into a soupy mess.

The heat closed a 3.3-mile loop called Firehole Lake Drive. The road is about six miles north of Old Faithful and takes tourists past the Great Fountain Geyser, White Dome Geyser and Firehole Lake.

Although it didn't take long for crews to make necessary repairs (the road closed July 10 and reopened July 14), one Colorado professor says climate change could wreak havoc on similar infrastructure unless experts figure out how to address it.

Changes in 'Normal' Weather

The most significant impact on infrastructure will come from changes in "normal" weather for longer periods of time—not from extreme weather events, Paul Chinowsky told the Daily Camera several days before the Yellowstone road problem was announced.

Chinowsky is co-director of the Institute of Climate and Civil Systems and the Mortenson Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

At Yellowstone, the active thermal area normally has a high ground temperature, but additional high air temperatures caused the damage, park officials said.

'Huge Economic Impact'

That dovetails with research by Chinowsky, who has spent the last decade developing modeling tools to predict how weather change could impact infrastructure.

"Road surfaces get weaker in heat," Chinowsky said. "Asphalt gets softer. As trucks and cars pass, you get a lot more potholes, more cracking.

"It won't be a one-time event but a constant thing. That's the part we don't talk about, but that's the part that's going to have a huge economic impact."

Fixing Yellowstone

The park explained the road issue this way on Facebook: "Extreme heat from surrounding thermal areas has caused thick oil to bubble to the surface, damaging the blacktop and creating unsafe driving conditions on the popular, scenic road..."

Road crews removed some of the damaged area and used a mixture of sand and lime to soak up some of the thick oil that had bubbled on the surface.

©Technology Publishing Co. / Jodi Temyer

University of Colorado professor Paul Chinowsky is studying ways to mitigate the impact of climate change on roads and bridges.

"These actions have successfully mitigated most of the impacts, allowing the road to reopen to traffic," the park said.

Yellowstone National Park spans portions of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and is home to the world's largest collection of geysers. The main reason the park was established in 1872 as America's first national park.

Alarmed in Alaska

Chinowsky told the Daily Camera that he was first approached by officials in Alaska who were analyzing the impact of climate change on infrastructure. The officials discovered that in 30 to 40 years, the state would have to rebuild roads every 18 months.

After that, he was asked by the World Bank and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to analyze roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

And road surfaces aren't the only thing to worry about, Chinowsky said. In addition:

  • Roofs will leak with more rain;
  • Railroad tracks will warp under sustained heat, so trains won't be able to carry as much freight; and
  • Pipeline welds will need to be redone more often.

"This is almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Chinowsky said.

"If we miss this opportunity for another 50 years, the rest of the world is going to look at us and wonder why we didn't think weather and climate and sustainability were important."


Tagged categories: Asphalt; Bridges; Climate monitoring; Colleges and Universities; Environmental Control; Environmental Controls; Roads/Highways; Weathering

Comment from Karen Fischer, (7/22/2014, 9:36 AM)

Climate change... really...Amazing that roads in the extreme southwest don't seem to have this problem and they are exposed to far higher temps and wider ranges in temperatures that those in Yellowstone....

Comment from Doug Johnson, (7/22/2014, 10:40 AM)

Yellowstone is a super volcano; she is really active right now. It was reported here that there was an up lifting of the road and that hikers were warned away from the area because there is the potential danger of walking on what looks like solid soil and stepping through into hot water. That sounds like the road melted because of close volcanic activity not climate change

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (7/22/2014, 11:28 AM)

We just use different asphalt blends in Texas, with a higher softening temperature. No big deal. They handle the heat quite fine. I don't know where this guy is managing to claim a rebuild cycle of 18 months for Alaska, unless he thinks temperatures are going to be a lot hotter than El Paso... Anyway, the issue described in this article has nothing to do with global warming. It was caused by localized geothermal heat, something Yellowstone is famous for. Heat comes up from the ground. It's like going to Kilauea and blaming global warming for a lava flow across the road.

Comment from peter gibson, (7/22/2014, 5:57 PM)

Typical scare tactics of the green eco nuts....the only problem is they and their ilk believe the tripe. They dont get it in their heads ,that we all dont fall for it.

Comment from Karen Fischer, (7/23/2014, 9:03 AM)

I wonder to paid the grants for this guy to "study the impact of climate change on infrastructure?" Interesting that he mentions the "world bank" and the United States EPA.

Comment from Tom Ennis, (7/23/2014, 9:37 AM)

All good thoughts about other regions dealing with higher temperatures and asphalt. I would add that many, really old roads in the US has a component of coal tar in them which makes for a lower softening temperature. Some roads still exist today that were just paved over with asphalt. If they would test for PAHs, then they would have an answer if this is a factor.

Comment from Andrew Piedl, (7/23/2014, 10:24 PM)

This article appears to be about two different news events, related only by a thread. One story is about damage to a park road, assumed by the Park Service to be caused by unusually hot temperatures (does not have anything to do with a professor in Colorado). The other story about the professor seems a little less whacky if you follow the link in the ‘Daily Camera’. The prof does not predict that the roads in Alaska will need replacement every 18 months; that came from ‘models’ generated by someone in Alaska. I think the article is not well written, and the author does not seem to report things clearly. I agree with the general sentiment expressed here in the comments – the idea that a freight train is incapable of travel when temperatures are at 95 degrees Fahrenheit seems far-fetched. Here in the Northeast, our roads get the most damage in the winter from repeated freeze-thaw cycles, not ‘extreme’ weather (though it is possible to see deformation from heat). Obviously, roofs leak more when it rains more often, but I think heat cycling puts a roof under more stress than increased rain fall. The prof from Colorado may be misunderstood, or may misunderstand (perhaps he should consult some of his colleague’s in the Engineering school). Still, I would not be quick to dismiss the concept of studying the impact of climate change. Hurricane Sandy was not the worst storm in terms of rainfall, or wind speed, but it is second in terms of monetary damage. While it is not possible to ‘prove’ that the storm was the result of climate change, it is generally accepted that the elevated water level that accompanied Sandy (responsible for the most damage and loss of life when driven to land by the storm’s wind) was the result of elevated water temperature, which has been linked to climate change (be it caused by man, God or nature).

Comment from David Johnson, (7/24/2014, 10:28 AM)

I’ll weigh in. I believe in global warming. It is fact. The proof?...simple....states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio all used to be covered by glaciers! Ever wonder where "Moraine", Ohio (South of Dayton) got its name? Truth is, the glaciers have been receding for millions of years. This is nothing new. What is new is some clever people figured out a way to market it and make billions. I wonder if Al Gore and company are going to try to market gravity....I think its getting weaker....and we're all going to fly off the Earth....

Comment from Gene Kube, (7/24/2014, 3:09 PM)

The reason we have bad roads in the northeast is due to shoddy workmanship and states that pour most of the money collected for roads and road repairs to the unions.

Comment from Alfredo Claussen, (7/25/2014, 10:01 AM)

Exactly. The term: Eco-Nuts tells it all. Eco-nuts are responsable for some of the damages, like when they prohibited lead in electronic solder, which has created a lot more electronic garbage as the lead-free solder is much more prone to fail and create that electronic garbage. Another prohibition: the incancescent bulb, in order to replace those with mercury laden Compact Fluorescent lights (CFL's) that produce more electronic garbage, contain dangerous mercury and have a terrible Power Factor (around 0.48)... But Eco Nuts love them! How about new electric cars that when fabricated have already produced a lot of contaminants, just in their manufacture, and that require battery replacements that will contribute even more to pollution! There in nobody more stupid that a fully commited Eco-nut because they are absolutely phanatic and often misinformed or technically ignorant.

Comment from Alfredo Claussen, (7/25/2014, 10:07 AM)

On the above "info" (mis-information should be more appropriate: "Railroad tracks will warp under sustained heat, so trains won't be able to carry as much freight; and • Pipeline welds will need to be redone more often." What a piece of crap! Steel usen on railroad tracks DO NOT soften appreciably (or measurably) until several hundred degrees of heating, and there is absolutely NO proof that pipeline welds are NOT "re-done" often at all... the phrase is completely misleading and false. This "profesor should be stripped of its academic credentials ASAP.

Comment from Jeff Laikind, (7/28/2014, 9:49 AM)

Actually, railroad tracks do "warp" in the heat. If you do an internet search you'll find that it isn't softening, but expansion that causes the tracks to buckle.

Comment from Karen Fischer, (7/28/2014, 10:46 AM)

"If we miss this opportunity for another 50 years, the rest of the world is going to look at us and wonder why we didn't think weather and climate and sustainability were important." - I wonder what China is doing in this regard?

Comment from M. Halliwell, (7/28/2014, 11:02 AM)

Jeff, you’re on the’s the same reason bridges have expansion joints. When the metal heats up, it expands slightly...not a problem in short lengths, but when you have some length, it can add up. Rails are just long steel members. Regarding the original story...I tend to agree that the failure is likely due to local geological conditions rather than global warming. I'm not dismissing global warming, but one would assume that an area with prolific gysers and hot springs as well as near surface volcanic activitiy might be a little warmer due to the abundance of geothermal energy.

Comment from Alfredo Claussen, (7/30/2014, 10:45 AM)

In response to Jeff Laikind: Yes, higher temperatures cause thermal expansion of most materials, and railroad design and construction takes that into account. But the phrase used meant that as a result to "climate change", the trains "won't be able to carry as much freight..." which is not correct. Unless Eco-Phanatics learn to use the proper technical language, they will continue to try to scare everybody. The other one, related to pipeline welds is absolutely ridiculous: Pipeline welds are done to be permanent, during the entire life of the pipeline. To imply that those welds "will need to be redone more often" not only is wrong in regards to weld lifetime, but daring to say it will be "more often" is completely false and tendentious.

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