Rendering courtesy of Port Authority

Airports Are Confronting The Reality Of The Climate Crisis

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San Francisco International Airport is located in an area prone to flooding due to sea level rise and extreme tidal events. Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport has experienced extreme winter events that have increased from occasional snowstorms every few years to multiple snowstorms every winter. Essential Alaskan rural airports now face thaw-unstable permafrost. In Europe, two-thirds of coastal or low-lying airports are at risk of flooding in the event of a storm surge.

Airports around the world find themselves resolved to adjust to the effects of climate pollution against a backdrop of worsening weather conditions and projected continued climate abnormalities. Yet comprehensive plans of action to mitigate climate risk require deep understanding of current and future climate effects. Associated potential hazards must be weighed against the individual airport and its unique characteristics.

A 2023 white paper out of the UK’s Center for Air Transport Management outlines the primary climate factors affecting airport infrastructure and operations:

  • sea level rise,
  • storm surge,
  • increased intensity of storms,
  • changes in average and extreme temperatures,
  • changing precipitation,
  • changing icing conditions,
  • changing wind,
  • desertification, and
  • changes in the local species population distribution.

These factors, the authors say, can lead to physical or operational risks for the airport. For example, although the sea level rise is a slow onset event, inundation due to a storm surge can cause rapid and significant damage to airports.

“Climate change is happening now, so we don’t have the luxury of a great deal of time to get this ready,” Thomas Budd, one of the researchers, told Bloomberg. “The time for this was probably 20, 30 years ago.” Most airports weren’t designed to withstand temperatures over 50 degrees Celsius, he added.

Airports Play Catch-Up to Climate Risks

Airports face crucial challenges as they work toward segregating key priority areas for endurance planning and investment.

It takes a delicate balance to respond effectively and maintain adequate levels of functioning during or after an extreme climate event. In the event of a disruption, airports must have the capacity to adjust their activities to resume operations quickly and efficiently. Reducing climate risk is an equation motivated dually by ensuring business continuity and reducing economic loss. When designing new infrastructure is not an option, protecting the existing infrastructure is the primary approach.

In 2011, London Heathrow Airport conducted a comprehensive risk assessment of climate-related risks to direct or indirect operations to guide climate adaptation action. The assessment identified 34 risks in the short and medium to longer term. Yet few other airports around the world acknowledged the threat early on and took action to circumvent its worse effects.

Redesigns and reevaluations are taking place frenetically these days. And they’re happening none too soon, according to an iconic 2021 research study from Newcastle University.

“Failure to acknowledge the potential and long-term (including beyond 2100) adaptation commitment in development and adaptation planning may lead to a commitment gap and subsequently expensive retrofitting of infrastructure, creation of stranded assets, and less time to adapt at greater cost,” the authors concluded. “In contrast, considering the long-term adaptation commitment can support timely adaptation and alignment with other societal goals.”

After Typhoon Jebi in 2018, Kansai International Airport in Japan revised the design parameters and expanded its flood protection mechanism to address the likely climate change-related impact of the sea-level rise and the frequency and intensity of extreme events. Dominion Energy, the largest utility company serving Virginia, has concluded an agreement with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to construct the largest airport solar farm in the US at Dulles International. In Europe, contractors are studying building materials that allow runways to handle bigger temperatures swings or redesigning buildings for sweltering summers.

Case Study: Port Authority Airports & Beyond

“The impact of climate change has humbled us all,” said Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns JFK along with the smaller LaGuardia and Newark airports. The $19 billion redevelopment of John F. Kennedy International Airport includes modification for storm surges and coastal flooding.

As reported by Aviation Pros, the Port Authority’s NetZero blueprint builds on a 2017 blueprint that included a commitment to adhere to the Paris Climate Change accords. The Authority used a base level from 2006 when 274,000 tons of carbon dioxide were emitted from authority assets. Indications are that the Port Authority is making good progress at meeting markers of a 25% and 35% reduction, whether it is electrification, solar, wind, green leases, or working with partners.

The agency has broadly implemented science-based Climate Resilience Guidelines to mitigate the effects of climate change on its facilities and infrastructure, according to its website. The Guidelines are intended to maximize the long-term safety and operations of numerous critical gateways to the region (airports, bridges and tunnels, rail stations, and seaports) even as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of natural hazards.

The NetZero plan is estimated to cost several hundred of millions of dollars over the 3 decades it spans, Cotton said. It also aligns with national and state climate change goals set by the Biden and Murphy administrations to move to 100% clean energy by 2050.

The first part of the plan is to continue electrification of the authority’s 2,500 light, medium, and heavy-duty vehicles and build the necessary charging infrastructure of at least 600 charging stations, 375 of which are in service. The agency has already purchased a 32-foot all-electric Kenworth truck and an adorable autonomous vehicle. Port Authority’s completed deployment of 36 electric buses at its 3 metro airports is an important component of a broader environmental agenda which includes replacing half its fleet of light duty vehicles with electric powered cars and light vans by 2025. The authority has replaced 89 of 91 ship-to-shore and rail gantry cranes in the port with electric powered cranes that lift containers between trucks, ships. and trains, Cotton said.

In addition to its own vehicles, the authority has worked with airlines at its 3 airports to replace aviation ground support equipment with 1,000 pieces of electric equipment. Ultimately, the plan calls for third-parties to use zero-emission vehicles that are stationed at and travel to and from the airports. It will also need the airlines to transition to zero-emission aircraft and sustainable aviation fuel as well as to reduce emissions from aircraft operations.

The Authority opened the largest solar powered airport building in the nation, a consolidated parking garage, and rental car center adjacent to the new Terminal A at Newark Airport, adding to solar arrays constructed at LaGuardia Airport. The Port Authority is planning to build a larger solar canopy that will be 3 times the size of the Terminal A parking deck at JFK Airport to power the AirTrain service system. That canopy also will provide electricity on a subscription basis for up to 6,000 residents in the adjacent Queens community who wouldn’t otherwise have access to solar power.

Port Authority officials said they’re aware of the difficulty of such a sweeping transition, but are moving forward confidently if methodically.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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