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airports

In the Pacific, climate change means trying to expect the unexpected

Chris Bennett's picture

I was reflecting on the saying that “ignorance is bliss” as our plane was landing in Tuvalu, a small island nation in the South Pacific. We had been advised that portions of the recent runway resealing was failing in a number of locations, but it was the video below—showing the runway ‘floating’ under the weight of someone walking on it—that was particularly disconcerting.  Runways are supposed to be solid!

Tuvalu has regularly been called the ‘canary in the coal mine’ when it comes to climate change. The country is comprised of three reef islands and six coral atolls.  With the maximum elevation of 3-4 m, and sea level rise of some 5 mm/year, it is already at a risk of a range of climate change challenges. Now we have a new one: runway failure from beneath caused by what appears to be a combination of very high (‘king’) tides and increased rainfall.

​Air transportation – the critical infrastructure when disaster strikes

Charles E. Schlumberger's picture
Relief supplies being unloaded from a New Zealand C-130 at the airport in
Tuvalu after Cyclone Pam struck some outer islands. Photo: Nora Weisskopf

When disaster strikes, air transport is often the only feasible mode of transportation for first responders and urgently needed relief supplies. Following an earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, most roads, rail tracks and even ports become unusable, as they are blocked for days by debris. Airports, on the other hand, are remarkably sustainable and, within hours, usually become operational again.  

Kathmandu Airport: Already crowded
before the earthquake. 
​Photo: Charles Schlumberger
The main reason of this sustainability is that runways are on open space where debris of a disaster can be removed quickly. Furthermore, a runway usually suffers remarkable little damage even by a strong earthquake, such as experienced last week in Nepal or in Haiti in 2010. And even if there are cracks and holes in the runway, modern relief aircraft like C-130s can operate safely for some time.
 
However, the challenges of operating relief flights can quickly become overwhelming, especially for airports in developing countries that usually experience only moderate traffic. In Haiti, for example, more than 74 aircraft landed on a single day following the earthquake to unload supplies. Such traffic poses risks in the air; air traffic control, often hampered by inadequate or damaged surveillance installations, can’t cope managing all arriving aircraft. On the ground, where tarmac and taxiways are small, congestion quickly reigns which prevents the arrival of more flights.