Climate Impact on the Ramp

Kirsty Lewis explains how climate change will impact ground and other critical airport operations.


By Kirsty Lewis, climate change consultant, UK Met Office

The scientific consensus now overwhelmingly agrees that climate change is happening and that human activity is contributing to it.

Since the industrial revolution, huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) have been emitted into the atmosphere. Its concentrations are now higher than we’ve experienced at any time in over 400,000 years, and unless action is taken to reduce emissions, they are likely to rise even further. The most optimistic scenarios for climate change project that global temperatures will continue to rise for the next 30 years. What is more, without a significant curbing of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions across the world, we can expect warming of 2–6 °C over the next 100 years. What will this mean for airports and ground handling? Preparation is the key to planning for the ways climate change might impact your operations.

Climate change means more than global temperature change; it will also mean changes to a whole range of weather patterns, such as rainfall, wind, snow and storminess. These changes in climate will not be the same in different parts of the world. The climate is a complicated system and understanding exactly how the earth’s atmosphere will be affected is a challenge for scientists — however, our understanding of climate change is developing all the time. There are some early indications of the sort of climate we will be living with in the coming decades, which can help you prepare now by guiding the long-term strategic decisions you need to make for your operations.

Across North America, for example, it’s likely that warmer temperatures, particularly in northern areas, will mean that cold winters will be less extreme. This has obvious implications for airports’ ground handling operations. Some airfields that currently stay sub-zero throughout the winter might experience more marginal frost nights and less snow days, while others that only experience occasional frosts might see those incidents decrease. Understanding the weather and carefully planning aircraft deicing and runway clearance is important to meet busy schedules and reduce the environmental impact of wasted deicing fluids.

However, while warmer winters might bring some benefits, cities might also experience more extreme heat during the summer with an increased frequency and severity of heatwaves. There are implications for human health here (record summer temperatures in Europe in 2003 led to the deaths of more than 30,000 people), but also on many businesses and infrastructure. Building and runway design specifications are usually based on existing climatology — that is, they’re designed to withstand the current, typical climate. Newly constructed airports need to take into account the changing climate in their decision-making, because they are expected to operate effectively in the decades to come.

Aside from temperature, there are indications that many areas might experience more intense winter storms, which could increase the risks for traveler safety and impact on schedules. The incidence and severity of coastal flooding is also predicted to worsen. Sea levels might change due to the expansion of oceans as they warm and from the influx of water from melting glaciers and other snow and ice, especially the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland. It is predicted that sea levels could rise by 0.5 m over the next 100 years and could lead to an increase in extreme high water levels caused by storm surges, as depressions or tropical storms and cyclones track across the area. With more storms predicted, along with rising sea levels, many coastal airfields such as John F. Kennedy Airport in New York will be at greater risk from flooding.

But not all changes to the climate will have negative implications. There is some evidence for a continuation in the decline of fog, at least in some parts of North America. A reduction in the incidence of fog has benefits for airport operations, flight safety and a reduction in flight delays or diversions.

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