Airports are a major part of a country’s infrastructure. In addition to being travel hubs, they also enable economic activities and play a key role in national security. But many are vulnerable to sea level rise, especially those established in low-lying coastal areas.
Using sea level rise data from Climate Central and airport locations from OpenFlights, we found that 80 airports could be underwater with one meter of sea level rise, which researchers at the UN’s expert climate panel predict is likely to occur by 2100 if emissions aren’t reduced. Even if emissions are curtailed and warming is limited to 2 degrees Celsius, about half a meter of sea level rise is likely by the end of the century, which would flood 44 airports around the world.
The reason airports are threatened by sea level rise is simple: many of them capitalize on low, flat areas, which are required for long runways to facilitate takeoff and landing. Airplanes need room to gain altitude, which they can easily do over bodies of water, without worrying about tall buildings. This type of land is typically found near large bodies of water – wetlands, marshlands and floodplains – areas that are especially susceptible to sea level rise and storm surge. But while building airports near bodies of water started off as an advantage, it is now quickly becoming a liability due to climate change.
Which Airports Are Most at Risk?
Airports are at risk all over the world, but the highest number of affected airports are in North America, Europe and Asia, because there are more airports on these continents. The images below show the impact that half a meter and one meter of sea level rise would have on select airports.
Six airports in North America could be underwater with just half a meter of sea level rise. This figure increases to 12 at one meter of sea level rise and includes airports such as Key West International Airport and Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport.
Key West International Airport, located in Florida, has between 50 and 60 commercial airline flights each day and registered 870,000 passengers in 2018, according to its website. The visual below shows the impact of expected flooding on this airport with both half a meter and one meter of sea level rise.
In California, the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport averages 209 aircraft operations a day and has 127 aircrafts based at the airport. Located near the Salton Sea, this airport would be completely flooded with only half a meter of sea level rise.
Within Europe, 11 airports are at risk of being underwater with half a meter of sea level rise, and 23 are at risk if sea level rise reaches one meter.
Amsterdam’s Airport Schiphol is the 11th busiest airport in the world and is predicted to be underwater with only half a meter of sea level rise. However, it’s important to note that while the Climate Central maps show areas below certain sea-levels, they do not take into account flood barriers and other water management technologies implemented in the Netherlands.
Another European airport at risk from just half a meter of sea level rise is Denmark’s Kalundborg Airport. The map below shows the location of airport overlaid with half a meter of sea level rise.
Seven of Asia’s airports are at risk from half a meter of sea level rise, and 14 are at risk from one meter of sea level rise, including China’s Yancheng Airport and Iran’s Ramsar International Airport.
Yancheng Airport, seen below, could be flooded by only half a meter of sea level rise. This airport, located in Jiangsu Province, China, is a hub for both commercial and international flights, and averages 44 flights a day.
Ramsar International Airport is situated on the coast of the Caspian Sea. Half a meter of sea level rise would flood part of Ramsar Airport’s runways.
A Turbulent Future for Air Travel
While 80 airports would be inundated with one meter of sea level rise, they’re hardly the only ones affected by climate change. Lots of airports will feel the effects of storm surge and extreme weather, even if they’re not completely submerged by rising seas.
We are already getting a taste of what this will look like. LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark (N.J.) International Airport all experienced severe flooding from nearby water bodies during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. This flooding caused around 10,000 canceled flights and millions of dollars in lost revenue. And in September 2018, Kansai International Airport in Japan became surrounded by ocean in the aftermath of a typhoon. These events showcase what may be the new normal for airports once the rising waters of climate change become more permanent.
And it’s not just the United States. Airports around the world are under threat from storm surges and rising seas. For example, in September 2018, Kansai International Airport in Japan became surrounded by ocean in the aftermath of a typhoon. When important transportation hubs like airports are flooded, it is safe to assume that everyday travel routes like roads and train tracks are also inundated. The complete shutdown of transportation services by natural disasters like these demonstrate what may be the new normal for airports once the rising waters of climate change become more permanent.
Other aspects of climate change threaten air travel. Extreme heat, which comes with thinner air, has the potential to ground planes by making them unable to generate lift, and also may make air travel more turbulent.
As the implications of sea level rise are becoming better understood, many airport managers are acting to protect airports in the near-term. Singapore’s Changi airport has recently resurfaced its runways to allow for better drainage and is building expansions on higher elevations. In the United States, Boston Logan Airport and San Francisco International Airport have worked to install new flood barriers to stave off rising seas. Last October, officials at San Francisco International Airport decided to move ahead with a $587 million plan to build up the airport’s seawall from three feet to eight feet tall.
Explore other sectors and how they will be affected by climate change on Resource Watch.
Editor’s Note, 2/5/20: We updated this blog post to clarify that LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark International airports will not be inundated by 1 meter of sea level rise, though they may be affected by storm surges and extreme weather.
Editor’s Note, 4/3/20: It is important to note that while the Climate Central maps show areas below certain sea-levels, they do not take into account flood barriers and other water management technologies.