Geoenvironmental factors in the regeneration of military airfields in Great Britain
Britain is littered with active and disused military airfields, arguably the most distinctive feature of its twentieth-century defenses. More than 850 airfields were active during World War II, covering about 162000 hectares or 0.7% of the national land area. Today, fewer than 50 remain active, the majority having been transferred to ground defense roles, civil flying, agriculture, and other land uses.
There is a strong spatial association between the leading air bases and well-drained Middle Jurassic limestone, Upper Cretaceous chalk, and Quaternary fluvioglacial sands and gravels. Peacetime consolidation at a dwindling number of key bases has intensified impacts on these permeable lithologies, which are vulnerable to groundwater contamination, soil degradation, and erosion of landscapes rich in ecological and archaeological heritage.
Demolition for agriculture has been uncoordinated and incomplete. Alternative uses include laboratories, prisons, and motor racing, many introduced without environmental controls. Asset stripping of valuable infrastructure has become a public issue since the ending of the Cold War.
Disused airfields are now the foci of comprehensive regeneration schemes. Options include mineral extraction, afforestation, new towns, and runway conversion to airports. Decision making involves careful assessment of geological resources, geologic hazards, and available remediation technologies within the framework of a systematic environmental audit.
Britain’s “airfield problem” is the unique product of a densely settled countryside, a rich aeronautical history, and an imperfect planning system. Experience gained trying to solve this problem has many international applications.