Considering the Potential Impacts of Climate Change on Air Traffic Management

Considering the Potential Impacts of Climate Change on Air Traffic Management


R Burbidge, A Watt, A Melrose, EUROCONTROL, UK


Results from the first known study into the potential impacts of climate change on ATM. Three key impacts are identified: increased extreme weather events, sea-level rise at coastal airports and tourism-driven changes in demand patterns.


Aviation is one of the most weather-dependant sectors of the transport industry. This may make it particularly vulnerable to the potential impacts of climate change. In particular, the long lead times for new infrastructure may impact aviation?s capability for swift adaptation. Additionally, air transport is a global network where a perturbation in one part is likely to have knock-on effects throughout much of the air transport system.

EUROCONTROL, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation commissioned the first ever study into these issues, in 2008, as part of its regular assessment of challenges to growth within the industry. Undertaken by the OMEGA Consortium, a partnership of UK Universities, and the UK Met Office, this research has identified three major areas of concern: sea-level rise at coastal and low-lying airports, shifting traffic demand due to both climate-related changes in tourist destination and seasonal preferences, and the potential impact of increased extreme weather events on en-route traffic.

These changes, whose impacts could be felt as early as 2020, have the potential to affect the capacity, flexibility, efficiency and the structure of the ATM system as a whole, though to what extent is still to be quantified. Principle issues of concern are: disruption to operations, due to increased instances of convective weather which could cause reduced en-route capacity, an increase in track miles or increased delays; changes in demand on tourist routes which could potentially lead to a lack of runway and airspace capacity at new destinations and to redundant newly built infrastructure at existing airports; potential loss of capacity at over 30 major European airports that are situated in coastal and other flood risk areas. Ground transport links to such airports could also be affected.

Although measures can and will be taken to limit the impacts of anthropogenic climate change, inertias in the climate system mean that some degree of warming, and hence the associated effects such as sea-level rise, appear to be unavoidable. However, the precise impacts on the aviation sector are still relatively poorly understood and only limited research in this topic has been undertaken so far. The aviation industry, perhaps more than any other sector, needs to assess the potential scale and timing of these impacts to determine to what extent they are a business risk. This will enable the sector to plan for the most cost effective adaptation options.

The Omega Consortium and the Met Office are in the process of carrying out a further set of scoping studies for EUROCONTROL which will involve more specific analysis of the three potential areas of concern identified above. This will entail more in-depth modelling of the various potential impacts over a 2020-2050 timescale, including a quantitative and qualitative assessment of three selected European airports to assess when and in what ways sea level rise might affect their operations, and what adaptation strategies may be available. Preliminary conclusions are expected by the second quarter of 2010.

It is likely that these case studies will highlight the need for more detailed research. There may also be a requirement for market analyses to aid business planning. For example potential economic impacts on, inter alia, insurance liability, passenger demand, and operational costs, may need to be examined. EUROCONTROL will continue to pursue this issue in the framework of SESAR, the Single European Sky ATM Research Programme, funded by the European Commission, EUROCONTROL and industry, which is designing Europe?s air traffic management system for the coming decades.


Association for European Transport