New Threat to Urban Infrastructure: Underground Climate Change

Subsurface heat islands in dense urban areas can cause buildings and infrastructure to shift, tilt, and crack, a new study finds.

1 minute read

February 22, 2024, 8:00 AM PST

By Mary Hammon @marykhammon


Aerial view of the Chicago Loop in summer from the south, with buildings on the left, Grant Park in the center, and Lake Michigan on the right.

606 Vision / Adobe Stock

A novel study by Northwestern University in Chicago says there is a “silent hazard beneath the streets” that could have a major impact on buildings and infrastructure in the future: “underground climate change.” A Financial Times article by Patti Waldmeir details the findings and what it could mean for Chicago and other cities around the world.

The Northwestern research team, headed up by researcher Alessandro Rotta Loria, were the first to study how these subsurface heat islands that deform the ground affect urban infrastructure, Waldmeir reports. They placed underground sensors throughout the Chicago Loop and found the ground beneath some buildings can be 18F hotter than underneath a large park along the lake nearby. The effect is caused by heat emitted into the ground by underground structures (garages, basements, El tunnels, etc.) which causes the ground to expand and contract.

While these subsurface heat items aren’t likely to cause buildings to collapse or kill anyone, in the long-term, Rotta Loria said, it could mean shifting, tilting, and cracking buildings and infrastructure, which lead to significantly higher repair and maintenance costs, particularly in cities built near water.

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