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Climate Change Could Ground Your Next Flight

by Rachel Crowell
September 19, 2017 | Our Future

Sweltering temperatures grounded more than 40 flights in Phoenix earlier this summer. And that was no fluke—we can expect these effects to worsen until we get a handle on climate change, said Ethan Coffel, a doctoral student studying climate change impacts at Columbia University.

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That's right—even air travel is impacted by our planet's rising temperatures. Here’s what researchers say we can expect to change about flying unless we take control of our climate situation (ironically, it would help if we flew less).

It'll be harder to take off

When a pilot is attempting takeoff, they're only successful if they can maneuver the plane to generate enough lift under the aircraft’s wings. 

Just how much lift is needed? Enough so the heavy plane, including its passengers, fuel and the other stuff it contains, is propelled into the air. 

Here's the problem: When air temperatures rise but air pressure stays the same, air becomes less dense. And that decreased density means planes have to travel at faster speeds than usual to generate sufficient lift for takeoff, Coffel and two other researchers wrote in a recent research paper. 

Airports and airplanes themselves are simply not equipped for faster takeoff speeds.

“For a given runway and aircraft, there is a temperature threshold above which takeoff at the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight is impossible due to runway length or performance limits on tire speed or braking energy,” the researchers wrote. 

When it’s too hot for a plane to take off from an airport carrying its maximum load, there are few options for fixing the situation. And each option comes with a financial cost that’s likely to be passed on to the airlines’ customers, making flights more expensive. 

Some options are: 

1. Lengthen runways 

Aside from the costs associated with this infrastructure change, there are airports that simply don’t have the space for runway expansions, Coffel said to Rewire.  

New York City’s LaGuardia Airport and Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport are two hubs that feature short runways, lots of air traffic and limited space for runway lengthening, according to a joint study published by Coffel and Radley Horton, a climate scientist at Columbia University. 

2. Reschedule flights for times when temperatures will be cooler 

If an airline’s schedule is already jammed full, this could mean picking and choosing flight offerings, giving customers fewer options for reaching their destinations.

3. Impose stricter limits on the airplanes’ maximum takeoff weights 

To make a plane lighter, passengers, cargo and fuel might need to be restricted, the researchers noted. Fewer passengers means the price of a ticket will likely go up.  

By 2080, we can expect 10 to 30 percent of flights to have stricter weight rules than the ones currently in place, Coffel said. 

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Flights will be rockier

Once a plane overcomes climate-caused hindrances to takeoff, we can’t expect smooth sailing from there. Thanks to climate change, we can also expect: 

1. A bumpier ride 

Did you know there’s more than one type of turbulence you can experience on an airplane? There's one type that will get worse if climate change continues.

“Clear-air turbulence is especially difficult to avoid, because it cannot be seen by pilots or detected by satellites or on-board radar," researchers wrote in a letter for the journal Nature. "Clear-air turbulence is linked to atmospheric jet streams, which are projected to be strengthened by anthropogenic (or human activity originating) climate change."

Using climate change model simulations, they showed that at certain flight altitudes, if the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide doubles, turbulence will become 10 to 40 percent stronger and moderately severe turbulence will increase by 40 to 170 percent. 

“Our results suggest that climate change will lead to bumpier transatlantic flights by the middle of this century,” the researchers wrote, noting that the cost of this increase could include longer flights, greater fuel consumption and increased emissions. 

2. An increase in fueling stops 

Greater fuel consumption will increase the need for fueling stops. This will be exacerbated by the tighter weight restrictions that prevent planes from carrying lots of fuel, Coffel noted. 

Can aircraft innovation catch up?

It’s possible, Coffel said, but will take some serious prior planning. He and Horton explained in an article they wrote for The Conversation: 

“Both airport construction and aircraft design take decades, and have lasting effects. Today’s newest planes may well be flying in 40 or 50 years, and their replacements are being designed now. The earlier climate impacts are understood and appreciated, the more effective and less costly adaptations can be. Those adaptations may even include innovative ways to dramatically reduce climate-altering emissions across the aviation sector, which would help reduce the problem while also responding to it.” 

Still, even if new technology enables planes to continue flying at their current level of performance despite the effects of climate change, “there’s still this climate change cost,” because the focus will be on maintaining the current level of performance rather than attaining performance improvements, Coffel said to Rewire. It's almost like putting a bandaid on the problem.

Learn how climate change hurts the U.S. economy and simple things you can do to help reverse it.

Rachel Crowell
Rachel Crowell is a Midwest-based writer exploring science and math. Follow Rachel on Twitter at @writesRCrowell. Reach Rachel at [email protected]
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