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How Does Toronto Pearson prepare for extreme weather?

Recent flooding at Dubai International Airport led to flight cancellations, diversions, delays, and a clean-up effort stretching for days. Here’s how Toronto Pearson prepares for extreme weather, and keeps operations running when it hits.

Severe weather can pop up without notice, and result in a halt to operations, airlines cancelling flights, and passengers scrambling to figure out how to reach their destinations.

Recently, a powerful rainstorm swept through the United Arab Emirates. More than 141 centimeters of rain fell over Dubai in a 24-hour period — as much as the desert city typically sees in an 18-month span.

The storm crippled operations at Dubai International Airport, with flooding bringing flights to a standstill. The airport took to social media to advise passengers not to come to the airport, as flights were being delayed and diverted. Clean-up efforts lasted for days.

As Canada’s busiest airport, Toronto Pearson has experienced its share of extreme-weather events. To minimize the impacts of these rare weather phenomena, the airport has implemented state-of-the-art protocols and infrastructure to manage everything from lightning and ice storms to the type of flooding witnessed recently in Dubai. Here’s how these systems work.

Flooding

While not as severe as the Dubai event, Toronto Pearson experienced flooding just over a decade ago that tested the current system. A powerful rainstorm on July 8, 2013, submerged much of Toronto, including the airfield.

According to Environment Canada, the 126.0 mm (about 4.96 in) of rain that fell that day was a new daily rainfall record at the airport. The previous daily record was set during Hurricane Hazel, when 121.4 mm fell on October 15, 1954.

The airport has a complex wastewater management system consisting of four stormwater management facilities with a total capacity of 164,000 m3, along with 11 major stormwater ponds, as well as minor ponds and oversized ditches.

The largest stormwater facility is the Moore Creek facility, which has a capacity of 42 million litres, or about the same volume as 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

This system is used to mitigate any spills that could cause environmental damage to the water system. This is a crucial step in the airport’s commitment to sustainability considering that over 2 billion litres of jet fuel and over 9 million litres of deicing fluid are used each year.

As the saying goes, “April showers bring May flowers,” and this April, the system proved effective as Environment Canada recorded 138.1 mm of rain at the airport, smashing the previous all-time record for any previous April.

Cold Weather

Canadian winters typically mean colder weather moving in that brings ice, sleet, and snow – all of which can pose an operational issue for planes to safely arrive and depart.

Our teams monitor advancing storms days before the first flakes even fall and begin working on plans to ensure minimal disruptions to operations. This includes looking at traffic management initiatives, preparing crews to keep surfaces clear, and leveraging our social media channels to share proactive storm-related messaging.

At the same time, airlines may begin proactively cancelling flights. To counter the snow, we have over 100 pieces of specialized snow- removal equipment and hire seasonal crews to help clear the 5,000,000 square metres of asphalt.

The airport is also home to one of the world's most comprehensive deicing facilities, capable of deicing up to 60 aircraft per hour and more than 500 per day, which means an average of 16,500 planes each season.

Each deicing truck is driven by a Deicing Specialist who sits in an elevated cab and guides a spray arm to clean the aircraft with a glycol-based fluid, which melts away ice and snow.

Lightning

While lightning does not typically result in a coordinated clean-up response, outdoor workers are required to head indoors for safety in the event of lightning, which means many critical airport processes such as unloading baggage, fuelling aircraft, and guiding aircraft to the gate can be delayed.

Employees are notified when lightning is in the forecast, and if it strikes within eight kilometres of Pearson, an extensive warning system is deployed that includes more than 100 strobes across terminals 1, 3 and the infield concourse.

Heat

Heatwaves in the summer months come with their own set of dangers for those working outside.

With millions of square kilometers of asphalt, the runways and apron can get extremely hot.

To stay safe in the heat, those working outside limit their time outdoors, consume more water and take mandatory rest periods. Due to this reduced outdoor capacity, planes can take longer than expected to reach the gate, or luggage processing could be delayed.

High winds

While we don’t have to deal with tropical storms, we do frequently contend with high winds that can lead to damage to equipment and even impact how aircraft are directed to arrive and depart.

When the forecast shows we will see high winds, an advisory goes out telling employees to secure all ground equipment when not in use, especially aircraft service stairs which are easily moved by strong winds.

As the prevailing winds are from the west, the most common runway configuration at Toronto Pearson supports a westerly flow. However, high winds factor into the direction planes arrive and depart. When wind speed reaches a point where it is no longer safe for aircraft to land and depart in a certain direction, the runways are re-assigned to allow aircraft to land and depart into the wind.

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