The temporary disruption at London’s Luton Airport this week, when rising temperatures caused a small section of tarmac to lift off, is an example of the challenges airports face in making their infrastructure resilient to climate change , experts say.
The following explains how airports around the world are dealing with extreme heat and what may be needed to avoid future disruptions in another heat wave.
What happened in Luton and why?
Luton’s runway was closed for nearly two hours on Monday, prompting airlines to delay or reroute flights as temperatures soared above 37C, adding to the industry’s headache in a chaotic summer travel season in Europe .
A long-standing patch repair on a small section of the runway – equivalent to 0.2 percent of the total surface – became so hot that it became detached and began to heave, an airport spokesman said on Friday, adding that it was inside repaired in two hours.
It is built to the same specifications as others in the UK and meets industry safety standards and regulations, the spokesman said.
“We continue to evaluate all options in terms of ongoing maintenance and long-term resilience of our entire infrastructure.”
The spokesman did not comment on questions about the timing of the resurfacing of the runway, the type of asphalt used or possible material changes.
Runways are generally renewed every 10 to 15 years.
Experts say the airport, one of the UK’s busiest and used by low-cost airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet, may be more prone to the heat as it’s at a higher elevation than the other airports around the capital: Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.
Luton’s Climate Change Adaptation Report, released in November 2021, warned of one of the main risks in high temperatures, which could cause damage to infrastructure or affect operations.
The airport said it needs to ensure, in the medium term, that all airfield surface renewal projects take into account the effects of rising temperatures.
How do other airports deal with extreme heat?
Which surface materials are used depends on the climatic and local conditions as well as other factors such as cost.
In the Middle East, airports tend to use more expensive concrete runways because they withstand extreme heat well, Greg White, director of the Airport Pavement Research Program at Australia’s University of the Sunshine Coast, said this week.
In the UK and Australia, cheaper tarmac runways are more common, he said, although they use different degrees of stiffness depending on the local climate.
This means that in Australia, where summer temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius are not uncommon, asphalt roads are not melting like they are in Luton.
“That would only happen in Australia if Australia hit 50 degrees,” White said. “You need something outside the norm. But it can also happen at the cold end. You’re going to get various bugs, but it can happen in extreme cold when you’ve got something that’s engineered and designed for much warmer weather.”
Luton could make its runway more resilient to high temperatures, but that would in turn make it more vulnerable to extremely low temperatures, White said.
What are other challenges for airports?
Airports Council International (ACI), a group representing airports worldwide, said it will soon publish an airport maintenance manual for members with a section on pavement management.
“This includes lists of probable causes of pavement problems, and some are climate-related,” said an ACI spokesman.
Runway paving is just one of the potential challenges airports face as temperatures rise, while others, including airplanes, require longer takeoff distances and weight restrictions in hotter conditions.
As temperatures get warmer, planes take longer and take off with more fuel because hot air is thinner.
A Federal Aviation Administration study released in November 2021 showed that runways at eight or nine of the 30 busiest US airports may need to be lengthened by at least 500 feet (152 meters) because future temperature increases or heavier rainfall will require longer braking distances .
Rising sea levels and stronger storms mean that many airport operators are also investing in measures such as higher runways, seawalls and better drainage systems to future-proof their properties.
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/travel-news/explainer-why-luton-airports-runway-meltdown-shows-airports-may-be-vulnerable-to-climate-change-41859730.html Explainer: Why Luton Airport runway meltdown shows airports may be vulnerable to climate change