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Adaptable airports: designing resilience

Adaptable airports

In this article, Trinity Graham, Technical Director – Water Services, Australia identifies critical risks related to increased flooding vulnerabilities caused by climate change.


Trinity shares insight on what airports might consider implementing in response to changing climate conditions.

Resilience has a simple meaning for airports. If something out of the ordinary occurs that impacts on normal operations, there are sound response measures in place to get the airport back up and safely operating again quickly. Keeping runways operational and aircraft flying; ensuring lighting and communication systems are functioning, and moving passengers smoothly in and out of the airport are key airport operations.

In the coming years, airports will be significantly challenged to plan for and adapt to climate change induced risks. Airports will be affected by a broad range of climate change factors, one of which is a predicted increased vulnerability to flooding. Adverse risks include:

  • rising sea levels and storm surge levels;
  • increasing storm and rainfall intensity;
  • increasing occurrence and duration of heatwaves;
  • rising groundwater levels and increased saline intrusion;
  • decreasing ability to accurately monitor unpredictable and extreme weather; and
  • changing cyclone and storm behaviour.

Because airports are frequently constructed in low lying coastal areas, the most critical climate change risks posed relate to rising sea levels and intensified rainfall patterns. Associated implications include:

  • rising sea levels affecting vital coastal protection measures such as seawalls;
  • rising sea levels rising affecting current infrastructure flood immunity;
  • changes to rainfall intensity and frequency increasing storm runoff, potential for soil erosion and increased pressure on vital stormwater drainage systems;
  • groundwater levels rising resulting in foundation failures and flooding, and
  • increased salinity levels in groundwater resulting in costly damage to infrastructure including water services, sewer lines and buildings.

Airports are frequently located such that they can be affected by multiple event types including storm surge, local runoff caused by rain falling on catchments and creeks, and/or rivers impacting on the airport site.

The majority of coastal airports are highly experienced in flood risk management. Developing viable climate change risk management plans is not only well within the capabilities of airports operators, it is now essential.

To protect an airport’s infrastructure assets, it is vital to design the right infrastructure that will allow storm flows to be conveyed through the airport site and achieve the required flood immunity now and into the future. It is also critical that whilst flood immunity is achieved, airport infrastructure is designed to not have an adverse impact on the surrounding environment.

As airports develop and expand into surrounding areas, it is important to ensure that sites have adequate drainage systems and maintain flood immunity to support an increasing amount of infrastructure. Therefore, ensuring that comprehensive flood and drainage assessments are completed at airport sites during initial design and ongoing construction phases is critical.

Climate change risk will demand higher standards of flood immunity. In many cases, airports will need to source costly fill materials to reinforce and strengthen existing infrastructure. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive for airports, particularly sites in highly developed areas to source the large volumes of fill required.

Improving flood resilience: trigger points


There are an increasing number of airports that are currently developing, or have already developed, climate change adaptation plans that account for a broad range of potentially adverse climate impacts.

Adapting to potential climate change impacts will require many airports to adopt a trigger point approach to long term climate change planning. Determining when to implement these measures will depend on future estimations of climate change impacts. Because of the uncertainty of the timing and magnitude of climate change projections, it is recommended that airports consider developing climate change adaptation plans that incorporate trigger points based on “at what level” action should be taken rather than time specific actions to adequately plan for critical risks.

To ensure that appropriate response measures are developed for future climate change challenges, airports should consider implementing base case and diligent monitoring tools, which includes being aware of mean sea level changes and monitoring groundwater and salinity levels, to identify action trigger points. No two infrastructure assets share the same lifespan, particularly when climate change is factored in.

Airports will need to consider risks and action trigger points associated with critical infrastructure assets, including runways, taxiways/aprons, terminal buildings and coastal infrastructure such as sea walls, on a case by case basis.

Adopting a trigger point approach will enable airports to adopt an adaptive design and management approach for new works, meaning works can be built to a current standard, but with sufficient capacity to be “upgraded” to a higher standard sometime in the future when the relevant trigger point threshold is exceeded.This allows airports effectively prioritise and plan for:

  • infrastructure reinforcement, active maintenance, decreasing investment in asset maintenance or initiating a managed retreat;
  • stormwater improvements including drainage upgrades, pumping and storage;
  • response frameworks for disruptions caused by unexpected and/or extreme weather; and
  • refined emergency management plans.

Collaboration matters


Climate change will comprehensively impact airport operations. From maintaining critical airside infrastructure assets to ensuring communication systems are providing passengers with the most accurate and time sensitive travel information available, all areas of airport operations will be challenged by increasingly unpredictable extreme weather and climate events, despite how well prepared an airport is.

For an airport to operate efficiently in increasingly adverse climate conditions, it is vital that all departments and operations of airport activity have a broad, holistic understanding of how a fully integrated airport functions and the risks associated with all areas of operations.

Whether it is communications, operations, emergency management or coordinating teams, it is imperative that each area works with one another to develop a more resilient system capable of reducing infrastructure vulnerabilities both airside and landside. The system mustcope with disruptions of normal services, andmanage the implementation ofan efficient emergency response framework.

There will inevitably be damage to critical infrastructure assets, flight and passenger delays and disruptions to regular business operations due to extreme and unpredictable weather patterns. Regardless of impending climate challenges, operators must optimise an airport’s competitiveness and grow its business in a highly competitive global market.

By identifying, prioritising and planning for a broad and multi-faceted range of climate change induced risks, airport operators will be able to develop and implement thorough and adaptable climate adaptation plans and adaptive design approaches that are focused on improving an airport’s resilience.These plans should include prioritised proactive and targeted actions to address the broad range of potential climate induced effects that will be required mitigate future impacts on costly infrastructure and business operations.

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