As sea levels rise, is Philadelphia International Airport in danger from storm surge?

Max Cohen


Published 10: 50 AM EST Nov 7, 2019

PHILADELPHIA – Philadelphia International Airport’s location is one of its greatest strengths. Less than half an hour away from the city center, the proximity is a major plus for any traveler.

But its location also poses the greatest risk to the airport’s future. Situated on the banks of the Delaware River, federal climate studies have found the airport is at risk of flooding from storm surges caused by sea level rise.

The threat is forcing the airport to grapple with questions over its long-term viability, but officials say there are no plans to pack up and move. Yet climate planning experts say staying put brings its own problems.

A 2014 National Climate Assessment report identified Philadelphia’s airport as particularly vulnerable to storm surges. One runway is just 8.3 feet above sea level.

By 2040, Philadelphia could likely face an extreme flood of four feet that will put thousands of homes at risk, according to a study by the climate change non-profit Climate Central. The study estimates Philadelphia’s waters could rise by an estimated 19 inches by 2050, and in 2100, this number could increase to four feet.

Amid the World’s growing concern about sea level rise, airports such as Philadelphia’s take center stage because of construction on marshland susceptible to storm surges.

Boston’s Logan airport invested in flood barriers and waterproof fencing; San Francisco’s airport installed concrete walls to keep water out. Even inland airports in Tulsa and Kansas City face flooding risks, according to Billy Fleming, climate adaption planning expert and design school professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

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“We build most of our big international airports in some of our lowest lying places because at the time of building, that land was very cheap,” Fleming said. “This is the logic of land development in most of the United States: to put all of the things we want out of sight and out of mind in our most vulnerable landscapes.”

In 2018, just under 380,000 flights and 32 million passengers passed through Philadelphia International Airport – the 18th busiest in the country.

Some are advocating for the airport to uproot to a new location to avert long-term disaster.

“There is no discussion at the airport about moving or planning to move to another location,” said Ray Scheinfeld, environmental manager at Philadelphia International Airport. “You’re looking at an airport four square miles in size – when would this happen? And what would aviation look like at that time anyway?”

Fleming agreed that a move into the suburbs would create complications and raise questions over the fate of airport workers.

“You have to ask the folks who depend on it for their livelihoods what the future of the airport should be, before we even begin to consider what happens there,” Fleming said.

Scheinfeld said the uncertainty is too great to move the location, citing the divergent estimates of how much seas will rise in the ensuing decades. For now, the airport is focused on staying put – and adapting.

Following climate preparedness guidelines from the City of Philadelphia, Scheinfeld said the airport is coordinating with the Federal Aviation Agency as well as city and state officials. The airport is updating environmental standards and revising flood emergency plans. 

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Fleming said threatened airports can build modest walls and levees to protect the facility in the short term and save a couple of decades. Airports could also follow the lead of southeast Asia and construct floating runways, he said, and even pack up and move locations, while sacrificing city center convenience.

But none of these options stand out, Fleming said.

“They are all incredibly expensive and they are all incredibly intrusive,” Fleming said. “They are all a product of a decision to build airports in places we knew were flood prone 50 to 100 years ago when we built them.”

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