Jul 19, 2022 - Energy & Environment

"Melting" runways: Another sign we're not ready for climate change

 An attendee shelters from the sun under a Union Jack umbrella, during a heatwave, on the opening day of the Farnborough International Airshow in Farnborough, UK, on Monday, July 18, 2022.
Sheltering from the sun on opening day of the Farnborough International Airshow on July 18. Photo: Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The record-shattering heat plaguing the U.K. this week is wreaking havoc on local airports, as high temperatures damage runways that weren't built to withstand the sweltering conditions.

Why it matters: These airports' struggles are yet another example of infrastructure failing to keep up with our rapidly changing climate reality.

  • Plus, many European airports were in logistical shambles even before the mercury started rising, and heat-related issues stand to further muck up the works.

Driving the news: London Luton Airport and Brize Norton (a Royal Air Force base) reported runway issues as temperatures approached 100°F in parts of the U.K.

The details: Like many other U.K. airports, the fields mentioned above feature runways made of asphalt.

  • While generally cheaper and easier to maintain than concrete, asphalt is also more prone to dangerous softening in extreme heat. That's not usually a problem in the U.K. — but it is right now.
  • Runways themselves aren't the only issue. Other parts of the airports, like taxiways and gate areas, can also suffer heat damage.
  • Railways, too, are suffering in the high temperatures.

Yes, but: The issues at Luton and Brize Norton caused only minimal disruptions to civil and military aviation — though temperatures in the U.K. are expected to remain high, putting more airports at risk.

Heat has been a problem at U.S. airports too.

  • Vice President Kamala Harris' Air Force Two, for example, was delayed for nearly two hours at Chicago Midway last month due to temperature-related tarmac problems, per White House pool reporters.

The intrigue: Among the U.K. airports with asphalt runways? Farnborough, which is currently playing host to one of the aviation industry's most important trade shows.

  • No word yet if the heat's causing any issues as companies like Boeing and Airbus vie for sales of their latest and greatest jets.
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