California airports are disrupted by flooding, study finds

The Pacific Ocean and the California coast are just two of the main draws for visiting the state, but they could soon be the reason it’s getting tougher. As sea level rise increases and flooding worsens, dozens of airports in California, including Los Angeles International and San Francisco International, are at risk of disrupted operations, a new study finds.

California coastal airports. / Credit: Assessing Cross-Sector and Multi-Scalar Exposure to Advance Climate Adaptation Policy: The Case of Future California Airport Coastal Flooding

The study, published in Climate Risk Management, looked at 43 coastal airports in the state to determine how they might be affected by flooding. They found that 39 will have at least one asset, whether the airport itself, its surrounding roads, service areas or national airspace system facilities, exposed to coastal flooding from ‘by 2100. Many will feel these impacts much sooner – within 20 to 40 years.

Of these, 16 will be exposed to coastal flooding within their boundaries, 12 will have exposed runways and taxiways, and 30 will have a portion of exposed roads within 1.2 miles of the airport. according to the study.

Los Angeles International Airport, which handled more than 5.8 million passengers and more than 225,000 tonnes of air cargo from January through October alone, is among those feeling the impact. Researchers have found that up to 4% of airport access roads are already at risk of flooding.

Sarah Lindbergh, Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley student and lead author of the study, told CBS News that while the airport itself wouldn’t necessarily be directly affected by flooding, the impacts nearby flooding could cause significant issues with operations, such as the ability to transport goods and people.

“Because it’s a very important airport, even if it’s a small projected impact on a road connection, it could have huge ripple effects locally or even globally,” he said. she declared.

Some airports could face even harsher consequences.

“Some airports will start with very low exposure and then by the end of the century it will increase a lot. Like they start with maybe 0% of their assets exposed and then by the end of the century they will have like 90%,” said said Lindbergh.

Average percentage exposure of airport assets by 2100 (airport boundaries, runways and taxiways, NAS equipment and surrounding roads).  / Credit: Assessing Cross-Sector and Multi-Scalar Exposure to Advance Climate Adaptation Policy: The Case of Future California Airport Coastal Flooding

Average percentage exposure of airport assets by 2100 (airport boundaries, runways and taxiways, NAS equipment and surrounding roads). / Credit: Assessing Cross-Sector and Multi-Scalar Exposure to Advance Climate Adaptation Policy: The Case of Future California Airport Coastal Flooding

San Francisco International and Palo Alto, for example, “have a particularly large increase in immediate service area exposure that nearly doubles from the beginning to the end of this century,” the study says, causing “substantial disruption.” amid coastal flooding.

“In terms of exposed area and exposed assets, we see the bulk of those assets are going to start to have an impact over the next 20 years,” Lindbergh said. “…It is not long, like now at the end of the century, to change all these things.”

For Lindbergh, this “change” was the main goal of carrying out this study.

Experts have found that the oceans have risen more than 6 inches nationwide since 1950 and predict they will only continue to do so if the planet continues to warm. A 2022 NOAA report found that sea levels along the US coast are expected to rise an average of 10 to 12 inches in about 27 years, equivalent to sea level rise. over the 100 years between 1920 and 2020.

“Sea level rise will create a profound change in coastal flooding over the next 30 years by causing increased tidal heights and storm surges that will extend further inland,” concludes the report. “By 2050, ‘moderate’ (generally damaging) flooding is projected to occur, on average, more than 10 times more often than today, and may be intensified by local factors.”

This could cause significant problems for the country’s most populous state, which is home to 11 of the country’s busiest airports. Right now, Lindbergh said, there’s a “window of opportunity” for the infrastructure to be upgraded to be better prepared for what’s to come.

Even with a national and global reduction target greenhouse gas emissionsmany problems related to climate change are already being felt, including heat waves, droughts and sea level rise – will remain. Experts say these impacts will be felt for a long time.

“When we’re investing in this infrastructure that’s going to last 50 years, you have to think about all these environmental changes,” Lindbergh said. “…If we don’t really think about it critically…we’re kind of going to miss out on whether to really do a transformative adaptation.”

Even with the risk, the majority of the aviation industry has not implemented climate adaptation strategies at airports.

A 2019 report by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which includes 193 member states across the world, found that despite 74% of survey respondents saying their aviation sector was already feeling the effects of climate change, only 30% have already implemented adaptation measures. Twenty-five percent said they intended to do so in five to 10 years, while 6% said they did not intend to.

A 2022 report from the organization said it planned to conduct a new investigation.

The information found by Lindbergh’s team is only “part of the analysis” that needs to be conducted, Lindbergh said.

“We’re looking at where the water touches the infrastructure, but we have no idea how that infrastructure is going to behave in relation to water,” Lindbergh said.

That, she said, is up to the people responsible for its planning and management.

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