Climate-related weather disruption is becoming an increasing challenge for businesses, especially those with large amounts of physical infrastructure threatened by storms, floods and wildfires. To be able to prepare for and respond to these risks, companies need a better understanding of how exposed they are and the types of hazards they face.
One example would be US-based telecom provider AT&T, which serves more than millions of customers with its vast network of fiber, masts and data centres which are crucial to its continued operation. The company endured more than $600m of damage from extreme weather including hurricanes and wildfires in 2016 and 2017 alone, underscoring the threat climate change poses to its future.
AT&T’s operations teams can take steps to mitigate these impacts on its locations – such as installing backup power generators to safeguard against hurricane damage to commercial power or flood gates to prevent water damage.
AT&T’s Global Environmental Sustainability team recognised the need for a tool that could guide network resiliency investments by identifying vulnerable locations and helping to ensure that new infrastructure was built in lower-risk areas or in ways to better withstand these risks.
Working with the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne), they set out to produce the necessary data to power a Climate Change Analysis Tool (CCAT) that would allow them to map these risks and then target mitigating actions and future investment accordingly.
AT&T’s Climate Change Analysis Tool
The CCAT allows engineers within AT&T to visualise the likelihood and projected extent of extreme weather events, including flooding, drought, strong winds, high temperatures and wildfires to its network across the 48 contiguous US states.
This is achieved by combining highly-detailed, nationwide, long-term climate projections developed by Argonne with maps of the company’s infrastructure.
Working with internal stakeholders, the company’s Global Environment Sustainability team can then use this information to identify opportunities to mitigate these threats, as well as supporting AT&T’s network planners in identifying placement of infrastructure.
AT&T’s head of Global Environmental Sustainability spearheaded the project, with the support of a program director, a full-time internal data scientist and two additional data scientists.
Making the case for CCAT
The project team recognised that the data produced for CCAT could have huge value to organisations and communities across the country looking to prepare for the impacts of climate change, so they decided to share it in the public domain.
While it was difficult to articulate a precise potential ROI for the CCAT, given the unpredictable nature of extreme weather events, the team made the case by highlighting the costs AT&T had incurred so far due to disruption and asset damage.
They also linked it to the company’s broader strategic commitment to delivering enhanced network performance and keeping its customers connected, which is especially important during extreme weather events as people try to contact affected friends and family.
The climate resiliency project not only has long-term benefits to help mitigate physical risks but also has presented opportunities in the short term to advocate for lower insurance costs by making the case to underwriters it was less likely to face disruption.
While it does have internal data analysis capabilities, AT&T recognised that the sheer quantity of data and climate expertise required to build the tool meant that they would need external support.
In 2018, AT&T proposed working with Argonne on developing the tool. Argonne’s more than 1,400 scientists and researchers conduct cutting-edge research on a range of topics, including extreme weather forecasting, and have access to powerful computer systems capable of processing large amounts of climate data rapidly.
Funded by AT&T, the project began with a pilot in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, which were chosen because of their susceptibility to hurricanes and flooding. For these areas, Argonne delivered projections out to mid-century for the likelihood and severity of future climate impacts, including inland and coastal flooding due to increased rain and rising sea levels, as well as high-intensity winds. Argonne’s climate models produced high resolution data that could be easily mapped to show the impact of climate variables across the region at a very granular level.
Armed with that data, AT&T’s internal project team was then able to cross-reference at-risk areas with details of its network infrastructure to determine where it had a greater likelihood of facing disruption due to climate-related risks. Following the success of the pilot, AT&T then decided to expand the initiative to the contiguous United States, and to include additional climate hazard data projecting the risks of drought and wildfires.
Putting the data to use
Gathering the climate data itself is only the first step in building resilience against extreme weather events. To become impactful the data needed to be embedded into AT&T’s systems and considered as a variable when engineers are making decisions about its infrastructure. That could only be achieved in collaboration with stakeholders across the business.
The Global Environmental Sustainability team worked closely with internal operations and planning teams to identify business use cases which the data could be applied to and to ensure the data was presented in an accessible format for those who needed to use it.
UPGRADING EXISTING INFRASTRUCTURE
The project team engaged working groups of engineering managers to identify which parts of its infrastructure were most important to protect and which extreme weather events could pose the most significant threat to these. For instance:
- If local electricity lines are damaged by high winds, it can impact central offices and cell towers that don’t have back up power
- Towers have batteries at ground level that can be damaged by flooding
- Floods can impact office buildings and result in forced evacuations or damage to vital computer equipment
By understanding these risks, the team was then able to compile data demonstrating which sites faced the highest threat of each type of extreme weather. Feeding these back to the working groups allowed them to recommend targeted infrastructure upgrades with mitigating actions including:
- Installing generators at locations most vulnerable to hurricane impacts
- Moving batteries at towers at risk of flooding off the ground to higher locations on the masts
- Installing flood gates on the doors of sites at risk of flooding
SUPPORTING NEW INFRASTRUCTURE DEVELOPMENT
As well as helping target the upgrading of existing infrastructure, the data can help ensure that new facility locations are informed by any climate-related risks and potential weather disruptions.
This is incorporated in the workflows of network planners as they evaluate a site’s suitability for new infrastructure. For their designs, planners can consult the data from the CCAT to evaluate the risk of extreme weather events to each site and to incorporate that into their decision-making before deciding to go ahead with a new site.
Results and next steps
By combining insights from Argonne with its own network information, AT&T has been able to determine the risk of future extreme weather events to its own network at a neighbourhood level for up to 30 years in the future.
With this information it has been able to better plan its future infrastructure development to account for these risks while focusing mitigation efforts for its current network in a cost-effective manner.
Though it is hard to quantify the scale of the impact to date, internal stakeholders across the business are interested in how the data can support their own decision-making.
To provide even further insight, AT&T is looking at combining the different data points around each type of threat into a score so they can better understand the overall impact on a particular geographic area or asset. Rather than providing a complex list of specific variables they will be able to project that a particular facility has a high/medium/low risk of flooding, for instance.
In line with its objective of using the project to support other organisations and communities across the country prepare for the impacts of climate change, AT&T has published all of the data on its website and is partnering with other organisations such as EcoRise and the New York Power Authority to promote the use of the data. AT&T is also collaborating with NFWF to support the National Coastal Resilience Fund, a program established to restore, increase and strengthen natural infrastructure to protect coastal communities while also enhancing habitats for fish and wildlife.
Tom Wall, Argonne’s program lead in Engineering and Applied Resilience, said: “AT&T has demonstrated valuable foresite in pursuit of enhancing the climate resilience of both their organisation, but also the communities that they serve throughout the nation. Our partnership with AT&T has enabled us to deliver cutting edge climate impact data for the entire country through what effectively amounts to technology transfer of our national laboratory science to AT&T’s real-world applications.
“It is commendable that they are committed to maximizing the impact of this science through additional collaboration – working with the New York Power Authority, for example – to deploy this data to local-level decision makers and communities where it’s needed most.”
Advice for others
The team behind the CCAT shared the following advice for other companies looking to use data to boost their resilience in the face of climate change:
- Start small: Beginning with a pilot that demonstrated what could be possible to achieve helped win management support for a wider roll-out and buy-in from internal stakeholders.
- Leverage recognition from the ESG community: Gaining coverage in the media after the launch of the pilot and growing awareness of the project among the external ESG stakeholders, further bolstered the case for more investment in the project.