Flooding could soon disrupt airport operations in California as climate change impacts worsen, study finds

The Pacific Ocean and California’s coast are just two of the major draws for visiting the state, but they could soon be the reason that doing so becomes more difficult. A new study reveals that as sea level rise increases and flooding worsens, dozens of airports in California, including Los Angeles International and San Francisco International, are at risk of having their operations disrupted. 

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California’s coastal airports.

Cross-sectoral and multiscalar exposure assessment to advance climate adaptation policy: The case of future coastal flooding of California’s airports


The study, published in Climate Risk Management, looked at 43 coastal airports in the state to determine how they could be impacted by flooding. They found that 39 will have at least one asset, whether that be the airport itself, its surrounding roads, service areas, or national airspace system facilities, exposed to coastal flooding by 2100. Many will feel those impacts much sooner – within 20 to 40 years.

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

Los Angeles International Airport, which has had 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. 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 the study’s lead author, told CBS News that even though the airport itself wouldn’t necessarily see a direct hit from the flooding, the impacts from nearby flooding could cause significant issues when it comes to operations, such as the ability to transport cargo and people. 

“Because it’s a very important airport, even if it’s a small projected impact to a road connection, that could cause huge amounts of ripple effects at the local or even global scale,” she said. 

Some airports could face even harsher consequences.

“Some of the airports will start with a very low exposure, and then by the end of the century, it increases a lot. Like they start with maybe 0% of their assets exposed, and then by the end of the century, they have like 90%,” Lindbergh said. 

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Airport average percentage exposure of assets by 2100 (airport boundaries, runways and taxiways, NAS equipment, and surrounding roads).

Cross-sectoral and multiscalar exposure assessment to advance climate adaptation policy: The case of future coastal flooding of California’s airports


San Francisco International and Palo Alto, for example, “have a particularly higher increase of immediate service area exposure that nearly doubles from the beginning to the end of this century,” the study says, causing “substantial disruption” amid coastal flooding. 

“In terms of area exposed and assets exposed, we see that the largest part of these assets are going to start having some impact in the next 20 years,” Lindbergh said. “…It’s not a long time, like now to the end of the century, to shift all these things.” 

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

Experts have found that oceans have risen more than 6 inches nationally since 1950 and predict that they will only continue to do so as the planet continues to warm. A 2022 report from NOAA found that sea levels along the U.S. coastline are projected to rise an average of 10 to 12 inches within about 27 years – equal to the amount sea levels rose in the 100 years between 1920 to 2020. 

“Sea level rise will create a profound shift in coastal flooding over the next 30 years by causing tide and storm surge heights to increase and reach further inland,” the report concludes. “By 2050, ‘moderate’ (typically damaging) flooding is expected to occur, on average, more than 10 times as often as it does today, and can be intensified by local factors.”

This could cause significant problems for the nation’s most populated state, which serves as home to 11 of the country’s busiest airports. Right now, Lindbergh said, is a “window of opportunity” for infrastructure to be upgraded to be better prepared for what’s to come. 

Even with a national and global goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, many of the climate change issues already being felt — including heat waves, droughts and sea level rise — will remain. Experts say these impacts will be felt for a long time. 

“When we’re investing in these infrastructures that are gonna last for 50 years, you have to think about all these environmental changes,” Lindbergh said. “…If we don’t really critically think about it…we’re going to kind of fail on the opportunity of really making a transformative adaptation.” 

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

A 2019 report by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which includes 193 member states around the world, found that despite 74% of survey respondents saying their aviation sectors already feel the impacts of climate change, just 30% have already implemented adaptation measures. Twenty-five percent said they intended to do so within five to 10 years, while 6% said they had 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 just “one part of the analysis” that needs to be conducted, Lindbergh said. 

“We’re looking at where water touches infrastructure, but we have no idea how this infrastructure is going to behave towards water,” Lindbergh said.

That, she said, is up to the people who are responsible for its planning and management. 

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