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Too Hot to Fly: Heat Waves to Prevent Airplanes From Taking Off

By Tim Radford

U.S. scientists have just added a new dimension of horror to the modern airport experience: global warming could take heat wave temperatures to the point where it becomes simply too hot to fly.

And as the mercury rises, those aircraft that are cleared for takeoff may have been forced to take off a dozen protesting passengers, to lighten the load and get the rest of them safely off the ground.


Aircraft now contribute an estimated two percent to the greenhouse gas emissions that generate global warming. In the course of 2016, according to the World Bank, 3.7 billion people took flights, so even a small percentage of disruptions could affect huge numbers and keep them, fuming with impatience, in the flight lounges.

According to researchers from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, disruption is on the way.

Offloads needed

They report in the journal Climatic Change that, if humans continue to burn fossil fuels at an accelerating rate, and as average global temperatures creep up by the predicted 4°C above historic levels, then on the hottest days, between 10 percent and 30 percent of fully-loaded planes may have to remove fuel, cargo or passengers before they can take off: either that, or flights will have to be delayed to the cooler hours.

This is not the only problem that global warming and associated climate change will deliver to the airlines. Other researchers have warned more than once that as temperatures rise, so will the challenge of clear air turbulence.

But passengers won't just have to keep their seat belts locked—they may have to stay locked in for longer, as jet stream wind patterns change. Other research teams have found that slower progress against headwinds will mean dramatic increases in fuel demands.

Too heavy

But the Columbia team may be the first to have thought about the problems that warming will bring to the airport tarmac. Warmer air means thinner air. As the air thins, wings generate less lift as the plane accelerates along the runway. If the temperature gets too high, the plane may be too heavy to take off at all.

Average global temperatures have increased by almost 1°C since 1980. Late in June, American Airlines cancelled more than 40 flights out of Phoenix, Arizona as daytime temperatures inched up to 48°C.

And heat waves are expected to become more frequent, more prolonged and more intense with global warming. By 2100, temperatures on airport runways could have reached 4°C to 8°C higher than they are now.

The Columbia scientists considered the performances of five Boeing and Airbus commercial aircraft, and 19 major airports, and then worked with projections of future climate change to see how this would affect air traffic.

They found that tomorrow's aircraft would have to lose weight to gain altitude: up to four percent. For an aircraft of 160 seats, this would mean the loss of 12 or 13 passengers.

"Our results suggest that weight restriction may impose a non-trivial cost on airlines and impact aviation operations around the world," said Ethan Coffel, a Columbia University doctoral student. "The sooner climate can be incorporated into mid- and long-range plans, the more effective adaptation efforts can be."

And his co-author Radley Horton, a climatologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said, "This points to the unexplored risks of changing climate on aviation.

"As the world gets more connected and aviation grows, there may be substantial potential for cascading effects, economic and otherwise."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

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Kevin Vallely

'Rowing the Northwest Passage' Chronicles An Expedition Through the Changing North

By Kevin Vallely

In 2013 four adventurers set out on an 80-day rowboat mission through the Arctic's rapidly melting Northwest Passage. Their journey brought them face to face with the changing seas in a world of climate change. In this excerpt from adventurer Kevin Vallely's new book about the expedition, Rowing the Northwest Passage (Greystone Books), we also see how climate change has affected some of the people the team met along their journey:

An elderly woman walks toward us from the road. Tuktoyaktuk, in the Northwest Territories, is a sizable town by Arctic standards, with a full-time population of 954, but it's small enough that the bulk of the town likely knows we're here. The woman is smiling when she reaches us.

"I saw you coming in," she says. "Where you guys come from?" "We're from Vancouver," I say, my mouth still half full of food. "We started our trip in Inuvik nine days ago." Her name is Eileen Jacobsen and she's an Elder in town. She and her husband, Billy, run a sightseeing business. "You should come up to the house in the morning and have some coffee," she tells us.

Our night's sleep in the Arctic Joule is fitful; our overindulgence runs through all of us like a thunderstorm. By seven in the morning, even with both hatches open, lighting a match in the cabin would blow us out like dirt from that Siberian crater. The roar of the Jetboil pulls me out. Frank's already up, down jacket on, preparing coffee. "You like a cup?"

It's still too early to drop by Eileen Jacobsen's house, so we walk into town on the dusty main road, our ears assaulted by a cacophony of barking dogs. Dirt is the surface of choice for roads and runways in Arctic communities, as any inflexible surface like concrete would be shredded by the annual freeze–thaw cycle. Most of the town runs the length of a thin finger of land, with the ocean on one side and a protected bay on the other. About halfway down the peninsula, a cluster of wooden crosses rests in a high grass clearing, facing west. We heard about this graveyard in Inuvik. Because of melting permafrost and wave action, it's eroding into the sea, and community members have lined the shore with large rocks to forestall its demise. This entire peninsula will face this threat in the coming years. There's not much land here to hold back a hungry ocean.

We notice an elderly man in a blue winter jacket staring at us a short distance away. He's sitting outside a small wooden house and smiles as we approach. "You guys must be the rowers," he says. "Too windy to be out rowing." His jacket hood is pulled tight over his ball cap and he dons a pair of wraparound shades with yellow lenses that would better suit a racing cyclist than a village Elder. His name is Fred Wolki, and he's lived in Tuk for the last fifty years. "I grew up on my father's boat until they sent me to school in 1944, then I came here."

His father, Jim Wolki, is a well-known fox trapper who transported his pelts from Banks Island to Herschel Island aboard his ship the North Star of Herschel Island. Interestingly, we had the Arctic Joule moored right beside the North Star at the Vancouver Maritime Museum before we left. Built in San Francisco in 1935, the North Star plied the waters of the Beaufort Sea for over thirty years, her presence in Arctic waters playing an important role in bolstering Canadian Arctic sovereignty through the Cold War.

"We're curious if things have changed much here since you were a boy," Frank says.

"Well … it's getting warmer now," Fred says, shaking his head. He gestures out to the water speaking slowly and pausing for long moments between thoughts. "Right up to the 1960s … there was old ice along the coast … The ice barely moved … It was grounded along the coastline." He looks out over the shoreline, moving his arm back and forth. "They started to fade away slowly in the 1960s … icebergs … They were huge, like big islands … They were so high, like the land at the dew Line station … over there." He points to the radar dome of the long decommissioned Distant Early Warning Line station that sits on a rise of land just east of us. "It's been twenty years since we've seen one in Tuk." There's no sentimentality or anger in Fred's voice; he's just telling us his story. "It's getting warmer now … Global warming is starting to take its toll … All the permafrost is starting to melt … Water is starting to eat away our land."

I listen to his words, amazed. There's no agenda here, no vested interest, no job creation or moneymaking—just an elderly man bearing witness to his changing world.

Excerpted from Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear, and Awe in a Rising Sea by Kevin Vallely, published September 2017 by Greystone Books. Condensed and reproduced with permission from the publisher.

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Hundreds Dead in Mexico After Earthquake Strikes on Anniversary of Devastating 1985 Quake

In Mexico, a massive 7.1-magnitude quake struck 100 miles southeast of Mexico City Tuesday, collapsing dozens of buildings around the capital city and trapping schoolchildren, workers and residents beneath the rubble.

At least 217 people are dead, and hundreds more are missing. Among the dead are least 21 students at a primary school in Mexico City and 15 worshipers who died during a Catholic mass when the earthquake triggered an eruption at a volcano southeast of the city.

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Fourth St. sign under water in San Francisco. Scott Schiller/Flickr

San Francisco Becomes First Major U.S. City to Sue Fossil Fuel Industry Over Costs of Climate Change

San Francisco and Oakland are suing Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell—the five biggest investor-owned fossil fuel producers in the world—over the costs of climate change.

The two Californian cities join the counties of Marin, San Mateo and San Diego and the city of Imperial Beach that have taken similar legal action in recent months, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

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Climate Alliance States Show Us What Real Leadership Looks Like

By Luis Martinez and Kit Kennedy

In a forceful show of climate leadership, Governors Andrew Cuomo (NY), Jerry Brown (CA), and Jay Inslee (WA) and former Secretary of State John Kerry came together in New York City Wednesday as part of Climate Week to celebrate the progress and growth of the U.S. Climate Alliance, the bipartisan coalition that has grown to 14 states dedicated to meeting the Paris agreement climate goal. The coalition was founded by Cuomo, Brown and Inslee after President Trump announced the U.S. intent to withdraw from Paris.

President Trump may prefer to pretend that climate change isn't real—Gov. Cuomo quipped that the Trump administration is in "the State of Denial"—but these leaders detailed the extraordinary strides they're making, in the absence of White House leadership, to slash greenhouse gas emissions and grow their economies at the same time. For New Yorkers, it's exciting to see Cuomo's leadership on clean energy and climate continue to accelerate, from setting strong renewable energy goals, to a successful push with other Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative states to further slash carbon emissions, to banning fracking.

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Hurricane Maria Devastates Puerto Rico

By Andy Rowell

As new Hurricane Maria brings devastation to Puerto Rico, the governor of the island, Ricardo Rossello, has asked Donald Trump to declare the U.S. territory a disaster zone.

He has said that Maria could be the most damaging hurricane to hit the country in more than 100 years.

With maximum recorded wind speeds of 140 mph and rainfall of up to 25 inches or even higher, Mike Brennan, a senior hurricane specialist from the U.S. National Hurricane Center has also warned locals of flash-flooding and "punishing" rainfall. He added that the storm would remain "very dangerous" for the next couple of days.

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Nicaragua to Sign Paris Agreement, Leaving Trump Alone With Syria

When President Donald Trump decided to pull out of the Paris climate agreement in June, the United States joined the only two countries of the 197 nations in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change that declined to sign the 2015 accord: Syria, which has been embroiled in a full-scale civil war for six years; and Nicaragua, as its leaders felt the pact was not strong enough to fight climate change.

But now, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said his country will sign the agreement "soon," Managua-based TV station 100% Noticias reports.

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14 States On Track to Meet Paris Targets

Fourteen states and Puerto Rico are on track to meet and potentially exceed their portion of the U.S. commitment under the Paris agreement.

The report shows that the member states of the U.S. Climate Alliance (USCA), which has grown to represent 36 percent of the U.S. population and more than $7 trillion of America's GDP, are collectively on track to reach a 24 to 29 percent reduction below 2005 emissions levels by 2025.

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Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation Awards $20M in Largest-Ever Portfolio of Environmental Grants

Environmental activist and Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio announced that his foundation has awarded $20 million to more than 100 organizations supporting environmental causes.

This is the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation's (LDF) largest-ever portfolio of environmental grants to date. The organization has now offered more than $80 million in total direct financial impact since its founding in 1998.

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