Climate Impact on the Ramp

May 20, 2008
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.

These are just some examples of the sort of changes to the climate that scientists are expecting — the full implications are much wider. The key question is, which of your work activities are affected by the weather or climate?

Weather conditions such as fog, thunderstorms, snow and ice might have obvious, large-scale effects on airfield activities such as flight safety or refueling. But less obvious issues — such as high temperatures that might subject employees and customers to heat stress — will also need to be considered as our climate changes.

Made now, the right investment decisions along with improvements in technology can reduce businesses’ vulnerability to climate change. The importance is in understanding the risk to your operations so that climate change can be factored in and planned for — now.

The Met Office Hadley Centre has some of the most sophisticated climate change prediction models in the world and advises individuals, businesses and governments in the UK and overseas on the impact and mitigation of climate change. This ranges from general guidance on what to expect in a changing climate to detailed climate impact studies for specific locations.

The question is no longer, will the climate change, but how is the climate changing? Information on the impacts of climate change can help policy makers, local communities and industries plan how to adapt. Climate risk management strategies are needed at all levels, from the individual, to governments.

The Met Office is highly regarded as an expert in aviation weather, one of only two World Area Forecast Centres providing global upper wind and temperatures to the aviation community.

It is also contracted by the Civil Aviation Authority as the sole provider of ‘Annex 3’ services in the UK.

The Met Office also provides commercial services to help plan with the weather. These include historic and climate change data and bespoke consultancy for strategic planning. Other specialist weather advice, such as deicing forecasts and OpenRunway services are available from the Met Office that can give you the advantage.

So stay ahead of the competition with contingency plans to lower, or even eliminate, the effects of adverse weather conditions and climate change on your operations.

The Met Office Hadley Centre is leading international research into the science and impacts of climate change.

For more information: or [email protected].