Airplane in flight

There’s something rather unsettling about eerie pictures of flooded airport runways, and it’s not just the submerged jet bridges. Such photos capture the type of disruptive scenes that could become more common in the future, as the effects of climate change continue to ramp up.

New attention to the issue shows that airports and airlines around the world will be affected by climate change in various ways. Consider this past summer’s spate of heat-related groundings in Phoenix, when 120 degree-air temperatures spurred a single carrier to cancel more than 40 flights out of the city. A recent study by scientists at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, at Columbia University, anticipates more troubles along those lines in coming years).

“There are a number of potential climate change impacts on aviation operations,” said Perry Flint, a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Impacts range from “reducing the take-off performance of aircraft, to increased storminess – meaning flights have to route around weather more frequently,” he said.

Each of those operational elements can directly impact the air travel experience, from flight delays and cancellations to more restrictions on baggage allowances. Clearly, not all airports will experience the effects equally, but what happens in one airport can easily affect flights and passengers traveling through other airports too.

Here’s a closer look at a few of the emerging issues aviation is likely to have to confront in a changing climate:

Risk 1: Flooded airports are a no-fly zone

Severe weather often causes delays or cancelations. But increasingly severe storms together with sea-level rise are expected to make coastal flooding a much bigger problem in several U.S. airports.

Thirteen of the nation’s largest airports have at least one runway vulnerable to a moderate to high storm surge, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment. Think Miami International, Louis Armstrong International in New Orleans, and of course, LaGuardia.

San Francisco International is another one that’s listed as vulnerable. There, the lowest runway is 5.4 feet above sea level, leaving it exposed to coastal flooding. That could spell trouble, considering some rapid-warming models have predicted chronic flooding in the area as soon as 2065.

To prepare for the flooding risks associated with sea-level rise, SFO is working to update infrastructure – efforts that, of course, take time. Airport spokesperson Doug Yakel said airport leaders have been studying the issue for years, with plans to strengthen existing protective barriers and build new ones by 2022.

LaGuardia, too, has been making headway. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey recently announced it’s invested nearly $1 billion since Sandy hit in 2012, including funds for installing flood protection for electrical substations, and improving runway and taxiway drainage systems at La Guardia.

Risk 2: Hot airplanes have a weight issue (and more)

Increasingly warmer weather could cause a range of air-travel-related problems, from the simple, like how extreme heat can cause cracks in a highway—and a runway—to the complex: different airplanes have different maximum operating temperatures.

This issue drew media attention to Phoenix Sky Harbor International this past June, when extremely hot temperatures led to the grounding of several flights into and out of the airport. And all serious projections are that high temperatures in Phoenix and the Southwest are only going to get worse.

But while the airport says it is commited to reducing airport emissions, a search of its website shows no major efforts to adapt to severe heat, and an airport official declined to discuss the issue.

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“There isn’t a lot of climate research on how climate change impacts aviation,” said Ethan Coffel, a PhD student at Columbia University and co-author of a new study on the subject. His research, published in Climatic Change, examines how rising temperatures affect aircraft takeoff performance, finding that warmer temperatures will create weight problems for long-haul flights.

Why? It comes down to physics. An airplane’s ability to take off depends on its weight and the density of the air around it. Its wings generate more lift when air is dense; when air is less dense, there is less lift from the wing, so the aircraft needs to move faster down the runway before it can take off. Aircraft scheduled for long-haul trips and requiring more fuel will face more challenging issues than those bound for closer locales.

Airports with hot weather and short runways will be especially challenging for some planes, like at LaGuardia and Washington D.C.’s Reagan National. And there’s often no easy fix for urban airports packed into tight real estate and unable to readily add more runway.

Coffel’s conclusion? On average, 10-30 percent of flights that take off in the hottest times of the day will need to reduce weight in order to achieve take-off, either by reducing cargo or passenger count.

Risk 3: Bumpier skies ahead

Once a flight is airborne (with whatever weight restrictions are suitable), there is yet another way climate change can rear its ugly head: turbulence. Research suggests climate change could make turbulence more common and worse, as warmer air causes stronger jet streams.

How much worse can it get, a squeamish traveler might ask?

“The amount of severe turbulence, and that’s turbulence that’s strong enough to hospitalize people, could double, or even as much as treble, later this century,” according to University of Reading professor and researcher Paul Williams.

It’s important to keep in mind that severe turbulence is and will remain quite rare. But even light and moderate turbulence are projected to become more common, with the former increasing by 59 percent, and the latter by 94 percent, if atmospheric CO2 levels double from pre-industrial levels.

In addition to the potential for more injuries (or more nausea), turbulence can also be costly. According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, turbulence costs commercial airlines $150-$500 million each year. That figure accounts for a range of costs, including injuries (like medical bills and liability suits), cabin and aircraft repairs, and time efficiencies lost to flight delays, inspection, and maintenance.

Speaking of pricy disruptions to smooth flying experiences, researchers in a University of Waterloo study found that climate change will result in more airlines having to alter flight paths to bypass severe weather. That in turn could mean higher operating costs for more fuel are passed on to passengers.

Looking ahead: Cutting emissions is vital, but impacts are inevitable

It’s fair to say that many aviation leaders are taking note of how the industry will fare in a warmer climate.

“The aviation industry recognizes the need to address the global challenge of climate change,” IATA spokesperson Flint said.

Indeed, many major airlines and airports have publicly stated targets for reducing their own carbon emissions, from incorporating biofuel and empowering pilots to save fuel, to airports to investing more aggressively in energy efficiency and renewable energy plans for ground operations.

Their focus on mitigation efforts like these is understandable, given that the aviation sector is estimated to account for 2-5 percent of global carbon emissions, a percentage expected to increase over the next 30 years.

But adapting to potential adverse impacts like those outlined above seems to many to have been less of a hot-button issue throughout the aviation industry.

“Aviation has always dealt with weather changes,” said Flint, “and we will be able to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Our main focus right now is on building the systems needed to mitigate our emissions as much as possible.”

Ultimately, however, adaptation to long-term climate change may command closer industry attention as the impacts of warming become more pronounced. Some of the actions likely will have to overcome the usual challenges in adequately funding major infrastructure projects like runway expansions and flood provisioning projects.

Strategic partnerships may be one key to the success of such projects, says Yakel at SFO. He says the airport has been actively preparing for future risks by partnering with local agencies to study threats to the region and local watershed, working collaboratively to develop a clear plan. “Operating an airport is always a team sport,” he says.

Also key will be deeper industry and third-party inquiry into the costs and consequences to aviation of human-caused climate change.

Unlike the typical patch of bumpy air, challenges posed by a less stable and changing climate change can be systemic, not subject to merely “flying around.”

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