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ENVIRONMENT Last modified on October 1, 2010


Changing weather patterns potentially pose a threat to the long-term future of the world’s airports, writes Doug Johnson.

We appear to have an almost morbid fascination with the weather, with the conditions outside or forecast for the day or even weeks ahead seemingly never far from our thoughts.

Indeed, British people are known the world over for often starting conversations with comments about the weather. And, of course, there is ‘weather banter’, where people on holidays or in sunnier climes cannot wait to tell you about what you are missing!

In most cases, the topic is treated in a fun and light-hearted way. But there is, of course, a serious side to the weather, and issues do not get much bigger than climate change and the impact that changing weather patterns will have on the planet.

From aviation’s perspective, up until now the debate has very much been about the industry’s impact on the environment, and rightly so. However, having recognised its effect on climate change, the aviation industry is slowly turning its attention to the impact of climate change on its operations.

At a recent ICAO meeting in Montréal, ACI raised its concerns about the potential long-term threat climate change poses to the sustainability of some of the world’s airports.
And ACI is not alone in its concerns, of course. In fact in Europe, the UK Met Office is working together with Omega and Eurocontrol to help the industry plan for an ever-changing future.

Rachel McCarthy, climate impacts scientist at the Met Office, explains: “We all know that to keep airports and flights running smoothly, it’s essential to stay abreast of changes in the weather. Indeed, planning for future challenges is how the industry stays one step ahead. However, we are no longer thinking just about tomorrow. We are now looking at the long-term impact of the weather and the change it will make to climates.”

One of the most obvious effects of climate change is the potential impact on tourism. As temperatures in Europe change and popular holiday destinations such as Spain and France grow ever hotter, the aviation industry could face a huge shift in demand, with tourists choosing to visit currently less popular areas for their holidays.

McCarthy continues: “Whether it’s predicting how tourists could react to even hotter temperatures in today’s holiday hot spots, or even studying the long-term viability of airports located near the coast, we have to be prepared for changing weather patterns.”

The aviation industry has long been at the forefront of recognising and understanding the impact its operations have on the climate, and the resulting importance of mitigation measures. However, there is a real and, in some areas urgent need for the industry to formulate adaptation measures, to deal with the impacts climate change could have on aviation worldwide.

In 2008, Eurocontrol commissioned the Met Office and the aviation sustainability partnership, Omega, to study how weather conditions are changing in the long-term and, crucially, how this might affect the future of aviation.

The end result was a review of climate impacts on aviation operations in Europe — from shifts in snowfall to potential changes in severe convection.

Wide ranging impacts

What it discovered was that increasing global temperatures throughout the 21st century will result in a number of challenges for airports. 

The distribution of snow and frost across Europe will change. In fact, in some areas it will mean it is not necessary, or at least economically viable, to maintain snow clearance equipment. Some airports, however, may experience more marginal conditions and more disruption caused by snow and ice when it does occur.

The lift an aircraft generates is directly related to temperature. So, on the hottest days there is likely to be a reduction in the number of airports with long enough runways to take very large aircraft at the height of summer.

Changes in the long-term average location of the jet stream — which drives much of the weather over Europe — could lead changes in wind circulation patterns. These could result in an increase in the incidence of crosswinds; a concern for runways built along the historical prevailing wind direction.

As the atmosphere warms up it has the potential to hold more water. This and an increase in energy is likely to result in increased convective activity and the aviation industry could find itself facing increases in the magnitude or frequency of severe storms — a major disruption to flight paths.

Drought is likely to prove an increasing stress in the Mediterranean which, combined with possible increases in heavy rainfall events, may lead to an increase in the number of flash floods affecting airport operations and possibly even energy supply.

Conversely, if higher temperatures cause water shortages or rationing, airport operators will need to keep a close eye on their water supplies, just to stay in operation. Without water, an airport simply cannot run.

However, it is not only flooding from rainfall that may be an issue.

Rising seas

Globally the rate of sea level rise has increased significantly since the 19th century and there is high confidence that these rates will continue to rise. The study highlighted almost 40 major international airports at risk from projected sea level rise, due to their positions on coasts, artificial or reclaimed land stretching out to sea or on floodplains.

This number is known to be an underestimate of those at risk as many smaller, but logistically or regionally important airports, are situated in similar locations and are likely to have fewer resources and strategies in place to deal with sea level rise.

Due to lengthy mixing processes in the oceans, sea levels will continue to rise even as emissions are cut back, making it imperative that airports and airport planners adapt to and mitigate rising water levels.

Future changes

To help airports prepare, the Met Office has developed a tool called MORSE (the Met Office Relative SEa level tool). This uses a series of climate model runs, alongside information on vertical land movement and digital terrain data from NASA to visualise, for any airport of interest in the world, the hazard posed by potential sea level rise.

As part of the sustainable development work commissioned by Eurocontrol, MORSE was used to further define the potential sea level rise hazard faced by three of the 40 major international airports readily identified as being at significant risk level. Two of these are privately-owned and listed on international stock markets and the other is currently state-owned and operated.

A team of researchers visited each airport and discussed existing adaptation measures with representatives of the airport authority. In all three cases the results identified not only the need for substantial preventative measures by the end of the century, but that it is also possible that impacts of sea level rise may be felt much earlier than that.

With progressive sea level rise and increased incidence and severity of storm surges, the likelihood of significant coastal flooding around Europe by the middle of the century shows the need for action to be considered within more immediate planning horizons.

The study shows that there is a clear need for all airports to assess the hazard that sea level rise poses to their operations and designing appropriate adaptation strategies to ensure future operational capacity.

The aviation industry is also benefiting from expert, impartial advice and in-depth understanding of the science behind the climate from Met Office scientists. It’s this understanding that really helps the aviation industry explore what to expect from weather conditions in the future — and how best to face them.

Airport World 2010 - Issue 4


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