Philadelphia International Airport grapples with climate change and sea-level rise

planeAerial shot of airplane with watercolor ocean waves in background
ShutterstockNatalima/Jaromir Chalabala
Aerial shot of airplane with watercolor ocean waves in background.

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Ray Scheinfeld parked the bright-yellow SUV he uses for his work as environmental manager for Philadelphia International Airport on a grassy hill and looked north to what few passengers ever see: the runways and tower used for cargo transport.

Then, he pivoted east toward the nearby Delaware River.

“We’ll have to build up,” Scheinfeld said, referring to the airport’s planned expansion on 152 acres purchased in the last few years. “It’s absolutely being designed with climate change in mind.”

Built on what used to be a network of islands in the Delaware River, the airport, a vital economic engine, is one of the city’s most vulnerable areas to the combined effects of higher seas and heavier storms, Philadelphia officials say. Moving it isn’t viable, so officials are looking to build up.

The airport is located just off the river, part of a tidal estuary that flows to the Atlantic Ocean, and so as the ocean continues to rise, the Delaware will follow.

In the 20th century, sea level rose by 12 inches in Philadelphia, according to research by Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. No one has a crystal ball, but scientists agree that sea-level rise, combined with more extreme weather, will have an impact in the coming decades, especially on low-lying areas such as the airport.

Estimates of sea-level rise over the next 40 years range from 1.2 feet to more than 4.5 feet by 2060, depending on how much carbon dioxide continues to be pumped into the environment by power plants and motor vehicles, according to the Delaware River Basin Commission.

Scheinfeld leans on the conservative side, using data showing a rise of about a foot to a maximum of 2.5 feet based on the Delaware Geological Survey.

The airport, spread across the islands, with Hog Island probably the best known, is built on silt and sludge, and is a key focus of the city’s climate-change plans. The city owns the airport, with its seven terminals and four runways spread over 2,598 acres — much in a federally designated floodplain.

More than 30 million passengers fly in or out of the airport each year in 420,000 takeoffs and landings. A half-dozen cargo carriers move 500,000 tons of freight and mail.

“We have a new area we are planning on 150 acres for a west cargo development zone,” Scheinfeld said. “And we would like to bring in more air cargo. As we build new infrastructure, we have to make sure ground elevation is minimum of two feet above the current flood standards.” 

The meadow where Scheinfeld stood overlooking the Delaware is part of the acreage — some of it wetlands — the airport has purchased in a bid to become a bustling shipping hub for everything from medicine to car parts.

The Henderson Tract, the largest parcel, sprawls 135 acres — similar in size to the entire King of Prussia Mall and its parking lots — to the immediate west of the passenger terminals. The new cargo hub could mean billions in business now lost to Baltimore, Washington, New York, and Newark, N.J.

Scheinfeld said he is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure the plans take into account both climate change and extreme weather. But the city is not looking at just a few feet of sea rise — it’s also considering what would happen if a massive storm hits on top of that. In 2015, Philadelphia laid out its vision in its Growing Stronger Toward a Climate Ready Philadelphia report, which is being updated.

The report said that the airport “and at least a dozen other city facilities would be exposed to flooding with two feet of sea level rise, a scenario that is likely to occur by midcentury.”

The airport, much of it elevated above the land’s natural state by dredge spoils over the decades, ranges from four to 25 feet above sea level. One runway is about 30 feet above sea level. Most of the terminals are about 15 feet above sea level. The airport drains into the Delaware River and the Schuylkill, and Darby Creek.

But a federal report says Philadelphia has one runway with an elevation of just 8.3 feet, putting it at risk during even a moderate storm surge.

‘How are we going to deal with this?’

ICF, a global consulting and digital services provider hired by the city, found that with only two feet of sea-level rise, parts of the airport would be inundated if it were struck by the equivalent of the largest storm ever recorded in Philadelphia, a Category 1 hurricane in 1903.

But Scheinfeld a geologist, said he has a far more recent precedent as a guide: July 28, 2013, when a thunderstorm dumped 8.26 inches of rain, most of it in just four hours. That easily surpassed the previous record for a single day, 6.6 inches, when Hurricane Floyd hit 20 years ago this month.

“It was one of those thunderstorm cells that just sat there for a while and presented some very interesting problems,” Scheinfeld recalled of the 2013 storm. “It knocked out all of our power for Terminal A East. We had 12 flights canceled. It caused our baggage system in Terminal A East to stop operating. And it really drove a lot of people here to say: How are we going to deal with this in the future?”

Two underground electrical substations flooded with 28 inches of water. Pumps failed from the strain. Flights that weren’t canceled had to be delayed.

At the time, July normally saw a total of 4.35 inches of rain. In 2013, 13.24 inches fell that July. The storm and the month may be an outlier, but it keeps with a trend: This decade is the wettest decade ever, measured by 10-year rainfall averages at the airport. Additionally, the average annual rainfall for the 21st century through 2018 (49.4 inches) is more than 8 inches higher than the 20th-century average.

The airport installed metal barriers that can be raised to cover doors to the substation during floods. It upgraded pumps. It installed redundant systems.

But Scheinfeld said water isn’t the only challenge climate change presents. High heat makes jet engines less efficient. It can even buckle tarmac, as Phoenix has discovered.

Costly and damaging

Solutions to climate change-related consequences tend to be costly and even unpalatable — such as the flood walls and barriers that might protect the New Jersey coast, but could prove unsightly and environmentally damaging.

Likewise, the airport’s plan to raise the ground because of climate change concerns Fred Stine of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. Stine said his organization understands what the airport faces, but objects to the new cargo area.

“One of the things we’re just starting to battle is the airport expansion,” he said. “They are getting ready to fill 135 acres of floodplain and they are building 11 acres on storm-water basins.”

Stine said that will mean the loss of the area’s ability to absorb floodwaters and could cause issues in neighboring Tinicum Township and other flood-prone areas of Philadelphia such as Eastwick. Building up the terrain also could affect wildlife.

“It will directly and indirectly impact the Long Horn and Lower Darby creeks and the Delaware River,” his group wrote in comments to the FAA. “It will dramatically reduce the flood absorption and storage capabilities in this localized area.”

Scheinfeld says he understands those concerns, as well as other objections he’s heard over the years about helping manage an airport built in a flood zone.

“I’ve heard people say maybe we should put the airport someplace else,” Scheinfeld said. “But where would you put it?”

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Editor’s note: “From the Source: Stories of the Delaware River” is produced with support from the National Geographic Society, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and the William Penn Foundation. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors. 

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