In partnership with advisory board member Amy O’Leary, PhD, associate director for environment, planning and economics research at the Virginia Transportation Research Center (VRTC), VA’s LTAP is pleased to present a series of on-going research spotlights. Every few months, we’ll bring you updates about research being put into action to increase efficiencies and provide sustainable transportation solutions.

This month’s Research in Action features a study conducted by University of Virginia researchers to tackle the impact of climate change on Virginia’s bridges and culverts. The team of scientists from UVA’s Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, led by Jonathan Goodall, PhD, set out to forecast likely changes in rainfall intensities and patterns due to climate change, and to provide recommendations to incorporate these estimates into bridge and culvert designs.

One method to account for changing climatic conditions on infrastructure design is to adjust precipitation intensity-duration-frequency (IDF) curves, a common engineering design tool used for flood forecasting that generally assumes precipitation patterns remain the same over the lifespan of a bridge or culvert. To forecast the impact of climate changes, the research team undertook four key objectives:

  1. Estimate future IDF curves through the end of the century
  2. Investigate the relationship between increased rainfall, runoff, and watershed area for a variety of storm events around Norfolk, Virginia
  3. Provide risk assessment strategies to determine appropriate bridge and culvert design criteria
  4. Repeat the rainfall analysis for other regions in Virginia to better understand the impact of regional rainfall variability.

The findings suggest that, by mid-century, rainfall depths for design storms (a time distribution representing extreme rainfall from many actual storm events in a region) across Virginia will increase by 10-30%, depending on the region. By the end of the century, rainfall depths for design storms are expected to increase by 10-40% allowing for regional variation.

The study recommends that VDOT design standards for storm water runoff and stream flows should be updated to account for greater predicted rainfall and discharges. Further, coordination with the Governor’s Office for Coastal Adaptation and Protection is recommended to ensure alignment with VDOT on climate scenarios affecting infrastructure designs and resiliency-based decisions across the Commonwealth.

Ultimately, the goal is to ensure VDOT roadway drainage and stream crossing elements better accommodate predicted increased precipitation volumes and discharges over the lifetime of bridge and culvert structures.

The UVA research team, working under contract for VTRC and VDOT, included Mohamed M. Morsy, PhD, Yawen Shen, Jeffrey M. Sadler, PhD, Alexander B. Chen, Faria T. Zahura, and Jonathan L. Goodall, PhD.

For more information, contact Jon Goodall at

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