Airports around the world are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Rising sea levels and temperatures, plus changes in precipitation, are all putting airport infrastructure and operations at risk. Airports need to address this urgently, and in doing so could create additional sustainability benefits.

So what can be done to make airports more resilient? This is something Arup looked at recently with Manchester Metropolitan University’s Centre for Sustainable Aviation. As you might expect, one of the key recommendations was to look at the problem holistically – coordinating regional, national and international strategies, and looking beyond the hard infrastructure into information and institutional systems and knowledge.

It was clear from this work that strategies to make airports more resilient should include:

  • educating staff, travellers and nearby residents about what to do during an extreme event and communicating effectively when something happens;
  • business continuity measures and back-up plans to support airport operations;
  • infrastructure design that takes into account the potential consequences of climate change; and
  • business models and funding that incentivise long-term planning, preparedness and prevention.

When you look at specific measures airports could take to improve and protect their hard infrastructure, you find a win-win situation where solutions not only address the effects of climate change but also provide additional sustainability benefits. For example, using some of the land that airports occupy for storm water storage could help alleviate flooding and, later, mitigate the effects of drought.

Similarly, weather-proofing airport buildings will not only help to reduce the effects of extreme weather on the airport but will also make them more energy and cost efficient. This includes cooling and ventilation systems, especially for airports in deserts, as well as designing routes and operations for human safety and comfort.

And well thought through ecological systems around airports can help to regulate temperatures, improve air and water quality and act as a sound barrier. These systems will put less strain on the residents and biodiversity living nearby the airport.

Ecological systems providing these benefits include restored blue and green infrastructure around an airport, such as wetlands, waterways, urban forests, and green space. These natural systems can help retain and absorb stormwater during rain events, preventing surface flooding, and reducing the strain on sewer capacity. They also help cleanse contained water before entering waterways, provide habitat for wildlife and help combat urban heat island effect.

Hurricane Sandy’s effect on the aviation industry – 18,000 cancelled flights and around $100m in lost revenue for airlines – shows that we need to consider climate change consequences urgently. And the sooner we start, the sooner we’ll reap the long-term benefits.