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Is Climate Changing The Way We Fly?

Published Oct 20, 2017 by 100TB Team

It’s hard to imagine a world without air travel as it’s become so embedded into our lives, both for business and pleasure. But in the age of climate change and increasingly extreme temperatures, commercial aviation is under increased strain to keep up with the climates they are now expected to operate in. For that reason, one of the most urgent areas of science and innovation in the transportation sector right now is changing the way we design and plan airports.

Evolving Threats

The problems that airports are increasingly facing are varied and complex. Low lying airports face threats from rising sea level, especially those that are in hurricane-prone, coastal areas. Experts predict that even a small rise in sea level could have disastrous impacts (including flooding) on many airports. Meanwhile, increasing temperatures can cause myriad problems including melting tarmac and undue strain on aircrafts themselves. This is because “hot temperatures cause air density to decrease, reducing lift and forcing airlines to either reduce weight on flights or move departures to cooler hours of the day.” For these reasons, and others, it is estimated that worldwide there is currently a $1.1 trillion injection into airport infrastructure projects to adapt the way we fly.

Up in the Air Ideas

In some parts of the world that are most at risk, officials are already well into projects that are designed to withstand the future pressures that climate change will bring to aviation. According to a report in the New York Times, “In Hong Kong, officials say that a project to build a third airport runway on soon-to-be reclaimed land was influenced by climate and sea-level projections made in 2014 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They say the $18 billion runway will have a sea wall that stands at least 21 feet above the waterline and can withstand 100-year storms, as well as a drainage system that is designed to handle rare floods.” While this project is impressive, projects like it are unfortunately not as widespread as they should be.

Getting Grounded

It’s important to note that this is not some risk that is far off in the future; we are already seeing the effect that climate change can have on airport operation, with many flights being grounded on days when the temperature goes well above 100 degrees F. Indeed, it’s clear that now is the time to begin designing airports and aviation for a more suitably weatherproof future. As one expert said, “The sooner climate can be incorporated into mid- and long-range plans, the more effective adaptation efforts can be." Here are some of the main investments and infrastructure changes that officials should be looking into in the hope of future and climate-proofing their airports:

Longer runways: On hotter days, it’s harder for larger planes to land or take off on shorter runways. Though the process of lengthening existing runways can be very difficult, that’s one area that officials should look into immediately.  

Lighter loads on planes: Heavy planes can’t take off in extreme heat due to the fact that increased air density from higher temperatures results in lower lift for the planes. Experts suggest that removing excess fuel and passenger loads could be one solution. Better yet, designing more fuel-efficient planes would mean aircrafts could carry less fuel overall, thereby removing the need for bumping passengers on hot days.

Scheduling changes: If larger planes must take off on hot days, then perhaps the best solution would be to schedule their departures for the coolest times of the day. While this won’t always be ideal in a timezone sense, it will be one of the most low-impact ways to mitigate extreme heat.

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