What would happen to Honolulu International Airport’s famous “reef runway” if the ocean rose a few feet in the next century?

When it was completed in 1977, Honolulu’s new landing strip became the world’s first major runway built entirely offshore on a coral reef. Three decades later, it’s a prime example of many transportation assets that could one day feel the effects of climate change.

Local officials have begun to patch together an understanding of which highways, airports and harbors are most at risk from rising waters, changing weather patterns and warmer temperatures. With local funds or staff time, Honolulu could become a guinea pig for a pilot program that’s offering hundreds of thousands of matching federal dollars to assess vulnerabilities and create planning resources.

“I certainly see the value,” said Brian Gibson, executive director of the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization. The federally mandated management group’s policy committee is comprised of members of the Honolulu City Council, Hawaii Legislature, the city’s Department of Transportation Services and the state’s Department of Transportation.

“Knowing what assets are vulnerable to climate change would inform our planning process going forward,” Gibson said recently at his Richards Street office.

An expert on climate change adaptation says integrating climate information into all projects and programs is key to effective long-term planning.

“In what ways am I exposed to a risk, how sensitive am I to that risk, and how adaptive can I be in the face of that risk?” Eileen Shea said Friday in a telephone interview. She’s the chief of the Climate Services Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Climatic Data Center and director of the NOAA Integrated Data and Environmental Applications Center.

“Anything they do to address either the ports or the airport should take into consideration the projections of sea level rise,” she said. That could mean everything from putting more fill under the current runways, designing them differently to maximize runoff, or even moving the airport to a different location.

“If you’re going to invest in any major infrastructure … and you want that to have a lifetime of 30, 40, 50 years, you really ought to be considering the major impacts of climate change,” Shea said. “Thinking about scenarios puts a burden on the scientific community to be able to give plausible scenarios for the future. You’re not going to get a forecast for 50 years [from now] like you’re going to get a forecast of the weather.”

Shea pointed to the “Global Climate Change Impacts In the United States Report” [pdf], which estimates that the sea level will rise between 2.5 and 3.5 feet by the year 2100, depending on how dramatically humans curtail their greenhouse gas emissions. That range is about double the scenarios put out by the International Panel on Climate Change in 2007 because that body did not include changes to ice sheet flow in its calculations.

Hawaii Department of Transportation Director Brennon Morioka said the department has already accounted for rising sea levels in its updates to long-range plans and master plans for the state’s harbors and airports. Plans for highways are being updated to include sea level rise as well. So far, the state has seen little reason to be worried about its assets.

“All of our aiports and all of our harbors are well above sea level,” he said. “A three-foot rise in sea level does not have an impact on day-to-day operations of those facilities. It might have an impact when we have a hurricane or a tsunami, but for normal operations our facilities are already able to accommodate some of the projections for sea level rise.

“Over a 30- to 40-year horizon, we don’t see too much impact at this point to our facilities.”

Morioka said future projects could include hardening shorelines to handle rising tides or increased ocean surges, and the department is looking at building roads further inland and providing alternate routes to existing coastal roads.

Asked if other expected climate change impacts — more frequent extreme weather events and generally warmer temperatures — are being considered in plans, Morioka said, “It’s hard to say because that’s still a debatable science.”

“The bigger aspect that we consider is the potential in sea level rise because that is more applicable to an everyday consideration for our facilities,” he said. “If you design for the extremes, then you can’t build anything. … We don’t build our facilities to handle a hurricane or a tsunami every single day.”

Shea, the NOAA climate change expert, said it might cost a little bit more at the beginning to account for all climate change impacts, but in the end it could be fiscally prudent because infrastructure won’t need to be repaired or replaced every few years. And while it’s not necessary to implement wholesale changes to all government policies, “it’s all about recognizing that this is a factor in our lives, and it’s not going to go away.”

The Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) staff had to hustle last week to meet the July 30 deadline for proposals for grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration for assessing vulnerability and risk of climate change effects on transportation infrastructure.

Gibson said three or four grantees nationwide could receive between $200,000 and $300,000 apiece to conduct studies. But any money from the federal government requires a 50-50 local match in either direct funding or in-kind donations of staff time. That somewhat rare option makes it “possible to leverage some of the work that’s already being done,” he said, but is tricky because budget shortfalls and furloughs have left local agencies strapped for resources and unable to chip in much work.

The application has a rough estimate of the resources available from local sources, Gibson said, and will highlight the MPO’s intent — “not pie-in-the-sky but realistic aspirations.” Because the Federal Highway Administration only announced it was open for solicitations in late June, some agencies were unable to give a firm commitment because they didn’t even convene public meetings to discuss the proposal, Gibson said.

The MPO’s executive committee gave its blessing to the application Tuesday. City Councilman and state House hopeful Gary Okino, the chair of the MPO’s policy committee, said there are higher priority projects. But he had no problem moving forward with the application — with the caveat being that if it is approved, local leaders will need to sit down and determine how many local resources can be devoted to the study.

“It would be good to do it, but if we do get the grant, then that’s the assessment that has to be made,” Okino said Friday. “We have to sit down with the different departments to see if they have the manpower to do this.”

Gibson said awards will be announced in the first week of September.

DISCUSSION Which of Honolulu’s transportation assets are most susceptible to the impacts of climate change? Join the conversation on these and other land issues.

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