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San Diego Airport Faces Rising Ocean Levels

San Diego International Airport sign on Harbor Drive on Aug. 12, 2019

Photo by Erik Anderson

Above: San Diego International Airport sign on Harbor Drive on Aug. 12, 2019

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San Diego International Airport officials are working to bolster the facility so it is resilient to rising ocean levels.

Aired: August 29, 2019 | Transcript

San Diego’s airport welcomes visitors with views of skyscrapers and a huge bay. The city’s welcome mat at the airport is facing challenges, however, as sea levels rise. As part of our Changing Climate Desk coverage, KPBS Environment Reporter Erik Anderson spoke with Brendan Reed the airport’s director of planning and environmental affairs.

Q: Climate change is a situation you are already considering. Why?

A: We know that this airport has to be operational for this region. That’s why we’re looking at what we can do today to have benefits in 80 years and I think that kind of foresight and planning is critical and I think (our proactive planning) really demonstrates our pro-activeness.

Q: About 220,000 flights flew in and out of the San Diego International Airport. What does all that traffic mean to the region?

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A: It’s just an incredibly important job center for our region. The second thing is that we have 24 million passengers, at least last year, that went through our doors. Those are, obviously, people who are coming here for leisure and they are going to come here and stay. They eat at restaurants. They stay at hotels. But (the airport) is also an important connection for businesses. So, when we have a new air service to say Japan, that creates an incredible opportunity for economic development for our whole region.

Q: We are standing near the end of the airport’s runway near downtown and San Diego Bay. The ground here seems lower. Does that put it at risk of climate change?

A: Most of the time this is where aircraft are starting their takeoff procedure from. So, this is an area where even now, even though it could be 80 years away we’re starting to think about how we can we reduce that risk.

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Q: Do you worry most about sea level rise affecting the airport property?

A: Many people might not know but the airport doesn’t sit right on the water. We actually have other property right across the street. We have the Coast Guard station. We of course have the Port of San Diego’s property on Harbor Island and we have city of San Diego Streets. So one of the biggest things we need to focus on and actually made a lot of progress even in the last five years, is working as a region and with those agencies in particular. And looking at how can we collaborate and make sure that something like harbor drive is sustained in the long run because although it’s not on airport property it is critical to get our airport passengers here.

Q: What happens to airport access if there is a storm surge or high tide?

A: The good news is that, roadways if it is temporary flooding, are pretty resilient. They bounce back. They drain and then cars go down it. But we want to make sure that our passengers always have a safe and efficient way to get to the airport. A couple of things on this. In addition to partnering again with the Port of San Diego and the city of San Diego. We’re actually partnering with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and we’re helping to deploy sensor out into the bay here that can provide us more data on how we think sea-level rise will happen on this granular scale, right here.

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Q: State officials say sea level rise will be about a foot and a half by 2050. What do you do if that estimate is wrong?

A: When you’re dealing with climate resilience. This is certainly not the last time we’re going to look at the data. One of the most important things, and that’s why we’re helping sponsor a Scripps putting in a sensor in the bay across the street is that we need to have constant data so that new projections can be taken into consideration and that of course can inform policies.

Q: What can you do on the airport property to deal with rising ocean levels?

A: Whenever we’re designing and constructing a new building we actually look at how those things like sea level rise impact that. And so, we’re actually able to change in some places the building elevation pad. If there is flooding in the future those building can be more resilient to that.

Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

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