Prepare Today For Climate Changes Tomorrow

July 1, 2015

The aviation world is well versed in cleaning up scheduling delays after natural disaster strikes but even so Hurricane Sandy served as a wakeup call for airports across the states. Flooding from this storm closed LaGuardia Airport, JFK International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and Teterboro Airport cancelling flights in the tens of thousands. Widespread cancellations also occurred in Washington, D.C., and Boston, which set off a ripple effect of cancellations across the United States.

The aviation world is also adept at uncovering the lessons learned in the aftermath of such situations; and Hurricane Sandy was no exception. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launched a pilot study to help airports learn how climate change can impact operations by increasing the frequency of severe weather events and to aid them in developing climate adaptation plans that mitigate these impacts.

Last month, Boston Logan International Airport became the nation’s first airport to draft a climate adaptation plan. The multi-million dollar strategy strives to make the airport, which is almost completely surrounded by water, more environmentally sustainable and resilient in the face of climate change. The document details how the airport can cut carbon emissions, trim energy consumption and protect runways and terminals from rising seas.

“The big trigger for this was Hurricane Sandy,” says Tom Glynn, CEO of the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport). “We’ve always been concerned about environmental issues, but I think that Hurricane Sandy drew attention to what our risks really are.”

He explains that an environmental group in Boston created a map demonstrating what could happen if a similar storm hit the Boston seaboard. “It concretized the risk we were facing and helped get us mobilized,” Glynn says.

Erica Mattison, legislative director for the Environmental League of Massachusetts, lauds Massport for being first out of the box with such a plan. She states emergency preparedness is a critical factor for airports to consider. “When an airport shuts down it has huge implications for, not just the immediate city where the airport is located but the entire region that relies on the airport for a variety of things,” she says. A natural disaster can significantly impact tourism and business travel and pose hefty financial losses to the community and the entire region.

Such plans are becoming increasingly important, she adds. According to a 2014 National Climate Assessment, 13 of the country’s 47 largest airports have one or more runways that are vulnerable to moderate or high storm surges. Hotter days, heavier rainfall, increased snow and ice, and more intense storms are some of the direct impacts airports may experience from climate change, reports Airport Climate Adaptation and Resilience: A Synthesis of Airport Practice, a document published in 2012 by the Airport Cooperative Research Program. “Very few airports … are considering ways to address these effects. Yet 70 percent of airport delays are the result of extreme weather, and such weather events are on the increase. In 2011, the United States witnessed a record 12 weather/climate disasters, each costing $1 billion or more,” states this report. Mattison says all of these things are among the reasons why airport stakeholders should be asking themselves the following:

--How quickly would the airport be able to bounce back and reopen if disaster strikes? (The disaster could be a hurricane, a tornado, a flood or even a winter storm.)

--What can be done now to minimize damage from specific types of natural disasters or other emergencies?

“It’s really about safety—the safety of employees and people accessing the facilities,” she says. “But it’s also about the structural integrity of the facility, and making sure runways, terminals, parking garages, and anything that makes an airport work is back up and functioning as quickly as possible. If they are not functioning for prolonged periods of time it has major implications on the airport’s ability to do its job, which is to get people from place to place.”

Plan for Climate Change

The FAA has made sustainability strategies a core objective in airport planning since 2010. To that end, Boston Logan was one of 44 airports of various types, sizes, geographic distribution and climatological changes to receive grants from the FAA to draft sustainability plans. However, it is among the first to throw resiliency planning into the mix.

It’s one of many firsts for the seaside airport. “Massport has been on the cutting edge of sustainability for years,” says Carol Lurie, principal at VHB and chair of Airports Consultants Council. “They’ve done sustainable guidelines, they did the first LEED terminal at Terminal A [both projects VHB worked on], and they integrated resiliency planning into their sustainability plan.” Massport also distributes an annual environmental report card that shows the public what it is doing in terms of noise, air quality, water resources, ground transportation and so on.

Now they’ve taken it a step farther with their climate adaptation plan, according to Lurie.

“We were happy to see that Massport increasingly has a focus on resiliency,” says Mattison. “Resiliency, the ability to maintain or quickly restore operations under extreme conditions, is an important aspect of sustainability. In an area like Massachusetts, where the airport is right on the water, we really need to be thinking about sea level rise, increased precipitation, flooding and increased storms. These are very real risks for Boston and the facilities Massport manages.”

With that being said, it’s still important for all airports to consider their resiliency, Mattison emphasizes. “Climate risk is not just about properties on the water,” she says. “It’s about all kinds of impacts, heat waves, tornadoes, you name it. How will they handle those sorts of things?”

Mattison outlines several steps to take when planning to deal with risks posed by climate change.

1)      Understand what the risks are. Unless you know what the dangers are, you can’t plan solutions to deal with them.

2)      Engage in planning to deal with those risks. Part of Massport’s planning included creating a task force of partnering agencies; sitting on committees at federal, state and local levels; and preparing for potential threats with key decision makers

3)      Engage the stakeholders. Make them aware of the risks and the plans that are being developed. “You can have the best plans in the world but if nobody knows about them, and they don’t know what to do when something happens, then a big piece is missing,” she says.

4)      Implementation of the plan and being ready. Make the airport climate resilient.

Gray and Green Go Together

The FAA purposely gave airports leeway to paint resiliency plans with a large resiliency brush. Current data on climate-related impacts can be used to evaluate the resilience of airport infrastructure, including the ability to recover quickly from a severe weather event and maintain operational efficiency.

 “The FAA provides broad guidance on plan content, but airport sponsors are able to identify their own sustainability priorities. “Climate resiliency is a common priority,” says Marcia Adams, a spokesperson for the FAA.

Mattison recommends airports consider both gray and green solutions in these plans. The gray piece hardens airport’s infrastructure--the bricks and mortar and key components within the facility. “You need to make sure you have electricity to run your facilities during a major event, water to run certain systems, computer and IT technology, and protecting all of that is very important,” she says.

But airports also should consider green infrastructure, according to Mattison. “How do we use nature as an ally to achieve certain things?” she asks. Some examples include using natural resources as a buffer. When an airport like Boston Logan is on the water, it’s important to think about open space and pervious surfaces that can soak up increased precipitation and water. “Wetlands are one way to do this; they can guard against flooding,” she says. “It’s not just about how can we build stuff to keep water out--because in the end Mother Nature will win. The idea is how do we use nature to protect ourselves and reduce risks, damage, and so forth.”

Massport considered both gray and green approaches in its two-pronged resiliency strategy, which includes:

1)      Addressing impacts. This includes hardening critical infrastructure, retrofitting existing facilities, providing redundancy, incorporating resiliency into new projects and cross-training its workforce.

2)      Reducing impacts through sustainability. This includes cutting emissions, a sustainability management plan, sustainable design guidelines, MEAP/NEPA compliance and project mitigation, and collaborating with agencies and institutions.

Lurie says the two-pronged approach works because resiliency goes hand in hand with sustainability. “I would say resiliency is an element of sustainability and by the same token sustainability is an element of resiliency. They are very, very connected,” she says.

 Set Priorities

“When you consider that in a natural disaster the airport is an important part of the rescue, reopening the airport, or keeping it open, is a pretty high priority,” says Glynn, noting that this fact required Massport to prioritize elements of the plan.

 Topping Massport’s list of priorities were electronics and key IT infrastructure. The airport reevaluated the location of these systems to ensure they were out of harm’s way. “If there is flooding, but then the flooding recedes, and the electronics or IT systems are damaged, that could put us out of commission for awhile,” Glynn says.

 Secondary to that was redundancy. According to Glynn, the airport seeks to add redundant systems and put them in safe locations as well.

 Massport’s priority list also calls on the airport to invest in things like flood doors to harden the facility to higher sea levels and increased storm surges. Sea levels are expected to rise 2 to 6 feet by the end of the century, and as much as 5 feet during heavy storms, so the airport allocated $9 million for flood doors and barriers, coastal management and portable pumps to keep the airport running after a storm surge.

But the plan also places the airport’s own environmental impacts high on the list and sets efficiency targets for airport operations. The airport plans to reduce energy consumption by 25 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020. It also plans to reduce waste produced by passengers by 2 percent every year through 2030, cut water use by 1 percent a year every year for the next decade, and increase recycling by 60 percent by the end of the next decade.

 When it came to things like reducing emissions, the airport trained its focus on HOV. It has one of the largest HOV participation levels in the country and it has a tremendous impact on emissions, says Glynn. “We also looked at our energy consumption,” says Brenda Enos, assistant director of Capital Programs and Environmental Management at Massport. “We use a lot of energy here, so we’re looking to upgrade our central heating plant. From a waste management perspective, we’re looking at increasing our recycling. The use of Six Sigma lean processes will help increase our recycling rate.”

 The Environmental League of Massachusetts applauds the priorities set by Massport. “The 60 percent recycling rate is commendable; over half of the material they handle would be recycled,” says Mattison. “That is doable and a great thing to strive for.”

Their plans to trim energy consumption and emissions also impressed the environmental organization. “Airports need to consider what systems are running the facilities, and what is being done in terms of education and awareness of employees and passengers,” she says.

“These are all very important to consider for an institution’s carbon footprint. You need to make sure you take advantage of technologies, but also engage your workforce so that you can achieve maximum savings on the carbon and on the dollar side. In this way, airports minimize their contribution to climate change.”

One of the biggest surprises the airport found as it moved through the process was “how simple the solutions were,” says Glynn. Things like moving IT systems from the first floor to the fifth were easy fixes that could keep things up and running no matter what the weather outside. “It’s kind of a daunting topic but when you actually get into the nitty gritty, there are practical things you can do that make a significant difference,” he says.

 He adds that a $9 million figure to make these improvements may seem pricey, but when spread out over five years it’s less than $2 million a year. Plus there is a return on this investment through reduced energy use and in being a good neighbor.

Revisit the Plan

Once airports put a plan into place, their strategy can’t just rest on a shelf, gathering dust. To be effective, Mattison stresses it must be put into practice. “It’s great when facilities incorporate some sort of online dashboard that tracks their progress,” she says. Many user-friendly tools exist for this purpose. “They offer interactive ways to show people the progress that’s being made,” she adds.

VHB already developed such a tool for Massport to track sustainability initiatives. The Sustainable Planning Optimization Tool (SPOT) tracks results based on a set of criteria that includes cost, operations and maintenance, financial feasibility and so on. This user-friendly tool allows Massport users to select individual sustainability initiatives to pull up step-by-step guides toward achieving those goals. The final piece of this tool is a dashboard that allows airport officials to report progress to the Massport board on a monthly or quarterly basis.

In addition, Mattison states that while a large multi-year strategy for resiliency is a great start, the work doesn’t end once planning ends. “It’s useful to have an overall, large big-picture document that is multi-year, but you also need to break things down by fiscal year so that progress is made in more manageable chunks.”

For instance, if they want to have a 60 percent recycling rate in five years, what does this mean for next year? What will be done to reach the goal for this year? “In some cases, doing this will help them actually exceed their goals, and achieve reductions and targets faster than they thought they would,” she says. “Then they can revisit their goal for the following year.”