Adapting aviation to a changing climate

Airport in the desert

Building a climate-resilient European aviation network.

The impacts of a changing climate and the intensification of disruptive weather events are a risk for aviation operations and infrastructure. 

A majority of respondents to a EUROCONTROL survey of aviation stakeholders, carried out as part of the Challenges of Growth 2018 work, expect climate change to affect their business between now and 2050. Identified impacts include:

  • higher-average and extreme temperatures;
  • changing precipitation patterns;
  • changes to storm patterns;
  • sea-level rise and storm surges;
  • changing wind patterns.

Although aviation deals with disruptive weather on a regular basis, such events are likely to become more frequent and more extreme as the climate changes. We need to prepare by increasing the aviation system’s capacity for resilience.

Building climate resilience

How can the aviation industry ensure the resilience of our infrastructure and the provision of safe, reliable operations and passenger services in the future?

According to the Challenges of Growth 2018  survey, most respondents (including ANSPs, airport operators, airlines, civil aviation authorities and manufacturers) think that the European aviation sector as a whole, and European ATM in particular, has started to take action to adapt to climate change but that more still needs to be done.

At EUROCONTROL, we are taking action with, and in support of, our partners to adapt the sector to this changing environment, and to build resilience in a timely and effective manner.

Identifying climate change risks

Among other initiatives, we have gathered information on the range of potential climate impacts for the aviation sector so as to better understand the potential risks to planning, infrastructure and operations. See our Challenges of Growth report for more details on potential adaptation and resilience measures. 

The table below gives some examples, although the significance of these risks will vary according to climate zone, geographical location and type of operations.

Challenges of Growth

Our vision of European aviation in 2040.

Climate risk Impact
 Precipitation change
  • disruption to operations  e.g. airfield flooding, ground subsidence
  • reduction in airport throughput
  • inadequate drainage system capacity
  • inundation of underground infrastructure (e.g. electrical)
  • inundation of ground transport access (passengers and staff)
  • loss of local utilities provision (e.g. power)
Temperature change
  • changes in aircraft performance
  • changes in noise impact due to changes in aircraft performance
  • heat damage to airport surface (runway, taxiway)
  • increased heating and cooling requirements
  • increased pressure on local utilities e.g. water and power (for cooling).
Sea-level rise
  • loss of airport capacity
  • impacts on en-route capacity due to lack of ground capacity
  • loss of airport infrastructure
  • loss of ground transport access
Wind changes
  • convective weather:  disruption to operations
  • convective weather:  route extensions
  • jet stream: potential increase in en-route turbulence 
  • local wind patterns: potential  disruption to operations and changes to distribution of noise impact
Extreme events
  • disruption to operations, route extensions
  • disruption to ground transport access
  • disruption to supply of utilities

Assessing climate change risks 

Airport, air navigation service providers or airspace users can carry out a climate change risk assessment to determine whether and to what extent climate change impacts will be a risk for them.  Here are three questions to get started:

  • Do you know how the climate will change in your area?
  • Who is responsible for climate change adaptation within your organization, and who needs to be involved in adaptation planning?
  • What are the key climate impacts that you may be vulnerable to? 

For more detailed information on carrying out a comprehensive risk assessment, please see the resource list at the bottom of the page.

Taking action: case studies 

We have also collated examples of related adaptation and resilience efforts and actions that may reduce the risk associated with the impacts of climate change, some of which have already been implemented by Member States, local authorities, and aviation sector organizations.

Of course, any decision on what measures to implement, and to what extent, are at the discretion of an individual State or organization. Given that climate may change differently or more quickly than current projections, it is important to review adaptation plans and measures at regular intervals to ensure the information is current.

Wetter and wilder weather! Preparing for more water at Norwegian airports

Most of Avinor’s airports are scattered along the rugged Norwegian coastline, with several having runways less than 4m above sea level. Avinor have been looking systematically into climate adaptation since the turn of the century. But when new legislation was introduced in 2006, requiring safety areas at the sides and ends of runways at several airports to be expanded, theory had to be turned into practice. The seabed close to the runways in question was very deep in some places. In collaboration with technical experts, this required looking into projections for future sea levels, wind directions, wave directions and – in some instances – the underwater topography to calculate the size, shape and amount of rocks needed to make robust fillings able to withstand future storms. A procedure was developed for dimensioning criteria for safety areas close to the sea, as well as a set of guidelines for low-lying coastal runways and strengthened requirements for potential new runways – they now have to be established at least 7m above sea level.

A comprehensive risk assessment of all Avinor airports, connected navigation systems and surface access to the airports has recently been undertaken. In general, more extreme weather events, storms and storm surges are expected. Increased precipitation and freak rains challenge the drainage of runways, aprons, buildings and other infrastructure. During the planning phase of the terminal expansion at Oslo Airport and the related work on the apron, for example, it was revealed that the new drainage systems were in need of 50% added capacity compared with the drainage systems from the 1990s, when the airport was constructed. Amongst other things, it was also discovered that the batteries for some of the NAV equipment are placed on the floor at airports at risk of flooding. This will now be rectified. Avinor’s experience is that minor adaptation investments in already planned and/or ongoing projects can have a positive impact on punctuality and regularity and save on future resources.

Preparing for higher temperatures

In 2012, a joint initiative between the Ministry of Public Works and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment was launched to conduct a preliminary analysis of the need to adapt the core network of transport infrastructure in Spain to climate change. The work identified higher temperatures as one of the key climate change risks to the core infrastructure network. It then went on to determine which adaptation measures could mitigate this risk.

Key impacts identified include new airport infrastructure, which should account for the rise in energy demand for air-conditioning systems in terminal buildings due to increases in temperature; potentially longer runways as higher temperatures mean lower air density, a factor that reduces the thrust produced by aircraft and the wings’ lift. Proposed adaptation measures include assessing what additional restrictions the current runway length may impose on the operation of aircraft in warmer temperatures and the best operating alternatives when a runway requires lengthening and this is not possible. At existing airports the usual practices aimed at reducing risks associated with high temperatures and heat waves should be continued, e.g. the pruning and removal of dry vegetation in the vicinity of the airport, or campaigns for the prevention of fires.

However, the impact of both higher temperatures and other climate change risks on the existing airport infrastructure will depend largely on the local conditions and the specific design of each airport. Therefore, it is recommended that an in-depth assessment of the risks posed to airports is launched.

Preparing for more extreme winter weather

Snowfall where it is not expected or which is much heavier than normal causes the most disruption to operations due to lack of preparedness. As heavy snowfall events are currently relatively rare in the UK, part of NATS’ adaptation strategy involved developing a plan to deal with such events should they become more frequent as our climate changes.

The strategy was put to the test sooner than expected in Winter 2010 when heavy snowfalls and record low temperatures brought travel chaos and disruption to Great Britain and Ireland. This led to severe disruption to the road and rail networks, with several airports being closed, including London Heathrow airport for a time.

NATS response
During the period of disruption, NATS managed to maintain a full ATC service with no disruptions. In response to the disruptive weather, NATS initiated coordination calls three times a day with airport and airline stakeholders. Standard operating procedures remained unchanged. However, the main
challenge in keeping the ATC service available was ensuring that staff could reach work. This was achieved by providing accommodation for key staff at hotels within walking distance of their workplace (e.g. at the airports) and also by using Land-Rovers to shuttle key operational staff between home and work. All key equipment (radar systems and radio communication systems) remained operational throughout the period, despite record-breaking low temperatures. NATS assets are designed to operate independently of the national grid (island sites) and NATS maintains a number of suitable vehicles and access equipment to ensure the continuity of service is delivered. This demonstrated that NATS has a suitable strategy in place should such extreme and unexpected snowfall events become more frequent as our climate changes.

Preparing for changing winds and temperatures

As a result of climate change, the UK may experience more extreme summer and winter temperatures, as well as changing wind speeds and direction, which can slow aircraft flow. One way Heathrow is mitigating the impact of changes to wind is by using time-based separation (TBS) procedures, in place since 2015. TBS brings additional operational benefits in addition to providing future climate resilience to Heathrow. Another measure we’re considering is vortex separations in crosswind conditions – whereby under certain crosswind conditions the vortex is blown away, opening up the potential to reduce separations a little and sustain aircraft flow. We’re undertaking more work and analysis in this area as wind is a key issue at Heathrow.

Heathrow’s climate change risk assessment also examines how more extreme temperatures might affect the airport pavements. We checked our standards and the risk from the effects of extreme temperature is low in the near to medium term. In the longer term, say in 50 years or more, there may be more significant temperature increases. We revisit our adaptation response plan regularly to ensure that it is up to date and that our engineering strategy is responding to these changing risks. We also feed our work into the UK Government’s national adaptation programme.

Developing a risk assessment methodology for French airports

A national climate change resilience programme was launched in France in 2011. It aims to prepare the country to both address and take advantage of the effects of climate change. As a result, the French civil aviation authority (DGAC) is carrying out a three-stage study,

So far, the VULCLIM project has drawn a complete picture of the likely climatic changes that could impact French airports by the end of the 21st century. Impacts have been identified that could both positively or adversely affect airport infrastructure, construction and operations. Then, based on the potential climate risks and their impacts, a method to assess the vulnerability of airports to climate change was developed. Taking the characteristics of a specific location, the method combines the probabilities of the occurrence of climate change risks and the intensities of the potential impacts to assess the vulnerability of the location. DGAC applied the assessment methodology to two of France’s top five airports, both located on the Mediterranean coast. Both cases have identified sea level rise and extreme precipitation as the
major threats to the locations considered.

Today, DGAC/STAC is working on the development of a tool aimed at helping airport operators to assess the vulnerability of their airport to climate change. The tool, which is based on the assessment method developed, will provide airport operators and aviation organizations with information on the weaknesses and strengths of any location to potential climate risks. It will highlight where an airport needs to take action in order to adapt and build resilience to climate change.

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