Last month, Phoenix enduring a blistering heat wave , with temperatures so high that airport officials had to cancel dozens of flights. The reason was two-fold. First off, some jet engines risk catching on fire in extreme heat. And when air gets hot, it expands and becomes less dense—so an airplane’s wings can’t generate enough lift to get off the ground.
Planes either need to speed up during take-off or use a longer runway. But Phoenix’s flight delays aren’t a one-off event. As the Earth’s climate undergoes a 1 to 3 degree Celsius warming over the next half-century, extreme heat waves will hit more frequently. Some of these heat waves will hit airports with short runways. Forget about rain delays or missing flight crews. At places like Washington’s Reagan National Airport, New York’s LaGuardia Airport, and Dubai International, the real trouble will come during heat waves.
During the hottest part of the day, 10 to 30 percent of planes will have to offload cargo or people, according to a new study by graduate student Ethan Coffell and climate scientist Radley Horton at Columbia University. “This study shined a light on a potential vulnerability,” Horton says. “A lot of airplanes at full capacity are ill-equipped to take off on some of the world’s runways when temperatures get really high.” The scientists looked at five common commercial airplane models—the Boeing 737-800, Airbus A320, Boeing 787-8, Boeing 777-300, and Airbus A380—and calculated how their takeoffs would be affected at 19 airports around the world, based on projected temperatures from 27 different global climate models. The runways represented the most common climates, elevations, and runway conditions at busy airports around the world—including US airports in Denver, Phoenix, Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Houston and Miami.
The good news for air travelers is that London, Paris, and JFK in New York will be able to shrug off the worst of future heat waves. But a Boeing 777-300 departing from Dubai at the time of the daily highest temperature may be weight-restricted about 55 percent of the time according to the study, which appears today in the journal Climactic Science . Because of the short runways, airplanes at Washington’s Reagan-National (7,170 feet) and New York’s LaGuardia (7,000 feet) will also have to lighten their load to get off the ground. Expanding the runways probably won’t work, given that they are either sandwiched along the Potomac River or Jamaica Bay. Heat waves aren’t the only problem facing the aviation industry as the Earth’s climate changes rapidly. Other scientists have calculated that severe turbulence—the kind that sends drink carts flying and sometimes even unbuckled passengers—will increase over certain transatlantic routes that follow the meandering jet streams. Paul D. Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading who published on the connection between climate change and turbulence this past year, thinks the industry needs to start dealing with climate change more aggressively. They could develop engines that produce fewer greenhouse gases, for […]