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Why can't anyone fix the $21 billion Kansai Airport?

Written by Bruno Teles
Published 14/06/2024 às 12:32
Why can't anyone fix the $21 billion Kansai Airport?
Kansai Airport, built on two sinking artificial islands, faces enormous challenges that no one can solve. Understand why this innovative airport is in this situation. Image: Bricklayer in Construction/Disclosure

Kansai Airport, built on two sinking artificial islands, faces enormous challenges that no one can solve. Understand why this innovative airport is in this situation.

Kansai Airport, located in Osaka Bay, Japan, is one of the most impressive in the world. Built on two artificial islands, it was designed to solve space and noise pollution problems. However, since its opening in 1994, the airport has faced a serious problem: it is sinking.

The construction of Kansai Airport was a remarkable engineering feat, costing around US$15 billion initially, with a further US$6 billion spent on measures to contain subsidence and protect the airport from sea waves. Yet since its completion, the airport has been sinking at an alarming rate.

The decision to build the airport on artificial islands came in the 1960s

When the Osaka region was expanding and needed of a new airport. The location chosen for the airport faced challenges such as earthquakes and typhoons, common in Japan. To deal with the soft seabed soil, which was 70% water, engineers dried the clay to create a solid foundation. 2,2 million vertical pipes filled with sand and a huge sea barrier made of rocks and tetrapods were used to protect the airport.

Despite these precautions, the airport began to sink faster than anticipated. Initially, it was expected to sink about 5,7 meters, but it had already sunk 8,2 meters by 1999, and continues to sink. Parts of the airport sink at different rates, causing uneven surfaces and threatening the integrity of the structures.

Even with the sinking problem, Kansai airport showed resilience

In 1995, it withstood the Great Hanshin Earthquake, and in 1998, it survived a typhoon with winds of more than 60 meters per second. However, in 2018, Typhoon Jebi caused significant damage, flooding runways and forcing the suspension of operations. The airport partially resumed its activities a few days later.

The solution to the subsidence problem has not yet been found. Engineers have been adjusting columns and increasing the height of sea walls regularly, but this is only a stopgap measure. The ground beneath the airport is expected to eventually compact completely, stabilizing the situation. Until then, Kansai Airport will continue to fight against time and the forces of nature.

Kansai Airport is a impressive example of engineering and innovation, but also a lesson in the unforeseen challenges that large infrastructure projects can face.

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Bruno Teles

I talk about technology, innovation, oil and gas. I update daily about opportunities in the Brazilian market. Agenda suggestion? Send it to brunotelesredator@gmail.com

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