Strategically burying just 5% of power lines could reduce the number of residents affected by a combination of heat waves and blackouts following hurricanes by nearly 40%, researchers have found.
Heat waves and hurricanes are both increasing in frequency and intensity because of climate change. Coastal residents are especially vulnerable if they occur in tandem after a hurricane leaves them without electricity, reports the U.S. National Science Foundation.
According to the Princeton researchers who conducted the study, the likelihood over 20 years of a hurricane-blackout-heat wave combination lasting more than five days will increase 23-fold by the end of this century.
“Hurricane Laura in 2020 and Hurricane Ida in 2021 both had heat waves following them after they destroyed the power distribution network,” said Ning Lin, the civil and environmental engineer who led the study. “For this compound hazard, the risk has been increasing, and it is now happening.”
The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, measured the risks associated with a compound events scenario and considered how they could be offset by infrastructure changes. It focused on burying network branches because alternative strategies for emergency recovery—like adding recovery resources and applying stricter structural criteria—would raise daily power costs without benefiting everyday operations.
In a business-as-usual scenario, roughly 18.2% of residents would face power losses in a hurricane-blackout-heat wave, the researchers found. But burying just 5% of power lines—specifically the ones near main distribution points—would reduce the impact to 11.3% of residents.
“Mostly, our current practice is randomly burying lines,” said Lin. “By burying lines more strategically, we can be more efficient and more effective at reducing the risk.”
The results of this work “shows the value of convergence science approaches for developing actionable solutions to society’s major challenges, such as the increasing frequency of storm events,” said Rita Teutonico, director of the NSF’s Coastlines and People (CoPe) program, which funded the study.
Like other forms of interdisciplinary research, convergence science brings together experts from different disciplines to examine complex problems. It differs from standard interdisciplinary research by focusing specifically on merging knowledge from the physical and biological sciences to tackle societal needs.