Runways Underwater: Rising Seas Threaten 80 Airports

Low-lying Key West International Airport Oct. 7, 1987. (Photo from the Wright Langley Collection, Florida Keys Public Library)


WASHINGTON, DC, February 8, 2020 (ENS) – At least 80 airports around the world could be underwater if climate change causes sea levels to rise just one meter (39 inches), which scientists at the United Nations’ expert climate panel predict is likely to occur by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced.

In a new analysis, researchers with the Washington, DC-based World Resources Institute, WRI, found that even if emissions are limited and warming is held to the two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) above pre-industrial times mandated by the Paris Agreement on climate, about half a meter (19.5 inches) of sea level rise is likely by the end of this century.

Even that sea level rise would flood 44 airports around the world.

The two major causes of global sea level rise are thermal expansion caused by warming of the ocean, since water expands as it warms, and increased melting of land-based ice, such as glaciers and ice sheets, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA.

Authors of the WRI analysis Noah Maghsadi and Tina Huang said their decision to focus on sea level rises of half a meter and one meter was based on end-of-the-century predictions made by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Yet even these estimates may be conservative because an assessment published in the journal “Nature,” found that there may be two meters of sea level rise by 2100.

“Based on this analysis, even if we do curtail climate change, adaptation still needs to happen,” said Maghsadi.

Low-lying Key West International Airport Oct. 7, 1987. (Photo from the Wright Langley Collection courtesy Florida Keys Public Library)

Airports are threatened by sea level rise because many of them are built on low, flat areas, which are required for the long runways needed to facilitate takeoffs and landings.

Airports are at risk of flooding all over the world, but the highest number of affected airports are in North America, Europe, and Asia, because there are more airports on these continents than elsewhere.

Six airports in North America could be underwater with just half a meter of sea level rise. This figure increases to 12 at one meter of sea level rise and includes airports such as Florida’s Key West International Airport and the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport in California’s Coachella Valley.

Key West International Airport handles between 50 and 60 commercial airline flights each day and registered 870,000 passengers in 2018, according to its website.

The Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport averages 209 aircraft operations a day and has 127 aircraft based at the airport. Located near the Salton Sea, this airport would be completely flooded with only half a meter of sea level rise.

In Hawaii, the urban corridor stretching from Honolulu International Airport to Waikiki and Diamond Head along the south shore of Oahu would be inundated with two meters of sea level rise, according to data compiled by Dr. Charles “Chip” Fletcher of the Department of Geology & Geophysics in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Many airports in Pacific small island nations that lack financial resources are also at high risk of inundation.

“They are totally reliant on commerce from airplanes and airports and… that’s going to cripple” how they get their imports of food and other basic goods, said WRI co-author Huang.

Seven of Asia’s airports are at risk from half a meter of sea level rise, and 14 are at risk from one meter of sea level rise. These include China’s Yancheng Airport located in Jiangsu Province which averages 44 flights a day, and Iran’s Ramsar International Airport used for private and sport flights along the Caspian Sea coasts and weekly flights to Tehran and Mashhad.

In Europe, 11 airports are at risk of being underwater with half a meter of sea level rise, and 23 are at risk if sea level rise reaches one meter.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is the world’s 11th busiest airport and is predicted to be underwater with only half a meter of sea level rise.

Schiphol is one of the world’s lowest-lying major commercial airports with the entire airport below sea level. Today the lowest point sits at 3.4 meters (11 ft) below sea level.

Runways at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport lie below sea level. Feb. 2, 2020 (Photo by Simon_sees)

But the Dutch have particularly strong water management strategies, such as building dikes, seawalls, and underground spaces where water can safely pool in the event of flooding. These measures, which are not reflected in the maps developed by Climate Central, are designed to mitigate flood impact on infrastructure and reflect a major investment in water-management technologies.

Another European airport at risk from just half a meter of sea level rise is Denmark’s Kalundborg Airport near the Kattegat Sea that lies between Denmark and Sweden.

When an airport is inundated by sea level rise it means loss of airport capacity, loss of airport infrastructure and also loss of ground transport access, according to a February 3 EuroControl report on adapting aviation to a changing climate and building a climate-resilient European aviation network.

While 80 airports around the world would be inundated with one meter of sea level rise, they are not the only ones affected by climate change. Many airports will feel the effects of storm surge and extreme weather, even if they are not completely submerged by rising seas.

For example, New York’s LaGuardia Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport, as well as New Jersey’s Newark International Airport all experienced severe flooding from nearby water bodies during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Around 10,000 flights were canceled and millions of dollars in revenue were lost.

And in September 2018, Kansai International Airport in Japan was surrounded by ocean in the aftermath of a typhoon.

Huang and Maghsadi say these events showcase what may be “the new normal for airports once the rising waters of climate change become more permanent.”

As the implications of sea level rise are becoming better understood, many airport managers are acting to protect airports in the near-term.

Singapore’s Changi Airport has recently resurfaced its runways to allow for better drainage and is building expansions on higher elevations.

In the United States, Boston’s Logan Airport and the San Francisco International Airport have installed new flood barriers to ward off rising seas.

Last October, officials at San Francisco International decided to move ahead with a $587 million plan to build the airport’s seawall from three feet to eight feet tall.

Other aspects of climate change also threaten air travel. Extreme heat, which comes with thinner air, has the potential to ground planes by making them unable to generate lift, and also may make air travel more turbulent.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2020. All rights reserved.


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