Science

Flooding may soon disrupt airport operations in California as climate change effects worsen, study finds

The Pacific Ocean and California’s coast are just two major attractions for visiting the state, but they may soon cause doing so that much more difficult. A new study shows that as sea levels rise and flooding worsens, dozens of California airports, including Los Angeles International and San Francisco International, are at risk of having their operations disrupted.

California Coastal Airports.

Cross-sectoral and multiscale exposure assessment to advance climate adaptation policy: the case of future coastal flooding of California airports.


The study, published in Climate Risk Management, looked at 43 coastal airports in the state to find out how they could be affected by floods. They found that 39 would have at least one property, whether the airport itself, roads surrounding it, service areas, or national airspace system facilities, that were exposed to coastal flooding by 2100. Many people will feel those effects much sooner — within 20 to 40 years.

Of those, 16 would be exposed to coastal flooding within their boundaries, 12 would have runways and taxiways and 30 would have a stretch of roads within 1.2 miles around the airport, the study said.

Los Angeles International Airport, which handled more than 5.8 million passengers and more than 225,000 tons of air cargo from January to October alone, is among those facing an impact. The researchers found that up to 4% of the airport’s road access is already at risk of flooding.

Sarah Lindbergh, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley and lead author of the study told CBS News that even though the airport itself would not be directly affected by the flooding, effects Nearby flooding can cause significant problems when it comes to operations, such as the ability to transport cargo and people.

“Since this is a very important airport, even if it is a small predicted impact for a road connection, it could create a huge amount of ripple effect locally or globally,” she said.

Some airports may face even harsher consequences.

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

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Average percentage risk of airport assets by 2100 (airport boundaries, runways and taxiways, NAS equipment, and surrounding roads).

Cross-sectoral and multiscale exposure assessment to advance climate adaptation policy: the case of future coastal flooding of California airports.


San Francisco International and Palo Alto, for example, “have experienced particularly high increases in immediate service area risk, nearly doubling from the beginning to the end of this century,” the study says, leading to significant increases in coastal flood risk. “Substantial interference” occurs.

“In terms of exposed area and exposed assets, we see that the vast majority of these assets are going to have some impact over the next 20 years,” Lindbergh said. “…not a long time like now until the end of the century to move all these things.”

For Lindbergh, this “shift” was the main purpose of conducting this study.

Experts have found that oceans have risen by more than 6 inches nationally since 1950 and predict they will continue to do so as the planet continues to warm. A 2022 report from NOAA found that sea level along the US coastline is projected to rise an average of 10 to 12 inches within about 27 years—the equivalent of sea level rise in 100 years between 1920 and 2020.

The report concludes, “Sea-level rise will create a profound change in coastal flooding over the next 30 years, increasing tide and storm surge heights further inland.” “By 2050, ‘moderate’ (generally damaging) flooding is expected to be, on average, 10 times more frequent than today, and could be exacerbated by local factors.”

This could pose significant problems for the nation’s most populous state, which serves as home to 11 of the country’s busiest airports. Now, Lindberg said, there is a “window of opportunity” to upgrade the infrastructure to be better prepared for what’s to come.

Even with the national and global goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissionsMany climate change issues are already being felt – including heat waves, Drought and sea level rise – will persist. Experts say these effects will be felt for a long time.

“When we’re investing in these 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 critically about it…we’re really going to miss out on an opportunity to create a transformative adaptation.”

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

A 2019 report by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which includes 193 member states around the world, found that 74% of survey respondents said their aviation sector was already feeling the effects of climate change, with only 30% saying Adaptation measures have already been implemented. Twenty-five percent said they intend to do so within five to 10 years, while 6 percent said they have no plans to do so.

A 2022 report by the organization said it plans to conduct a new survey.

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

“We’re looking at where the water touches the infrastructure, but we don’t know how that infrastructure will behave to the water,” Lindbergh said.

That said, it is up to those who are responsible for its planning and management.

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