Climate Change Threatens Air Travel

Written by Kate Goldstone

Rome’s Fiumicino airport is struggling. A fire in May affected the airport’s capabilities for two whole months. Thousands of holidaymakers were left stranded and all domestic and European flights were cancelled after a fire broke out in a coffee bar in Terminal 3, with twenty foot flames and a vast pillar of filthy smoke. Apparently the smoke inside the airport got so thick within just a few minutes that it was impossible to see.

Rome Airport Fire

Rome Airport Fire

Then it happened again. Last week an actual forest fire in the vicinity caused all sorts of chaos, including cancellations and delays. It appears fire causes big problems for airports and the airlines and people that use them.

A hotter climate means more fires

Forest rangers said the blaze affected around 40 hectares of a nearby 16000 acre nature reserve. The Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano says the recent fire at Fiumicino wasn’t an arson attack, but officials say three separate forest fires were probably started intentionally.

Wildfire in California

Wildfire in California

Whatever the cause, the bigger the fire the more difficult it is to control and put out. And as the climate warms, fires are bound to become a greater threat to all our transport systems. All it takes is a quick search on Google to realise droughts are common currency these days, with mega-droughts already affecting huge areas.

Global warming and air travel

Rome’s situation acts as a warning signal – as if we needed one – that the world’s climate really is changing. A warmer climate often means fires are more likely, and bigger, and their effects will inevitably be more difficult to contain. In fact, as Californians and Aussies know only too well, dramatic droughts are already a big issue.

Unless we move fast to mitigate global warming, the droughts and the wildfires that thrive in such dry conditions will become more common across the entire planet. And they’re bound to affect air travel.

California suffers the worst drought in 1200 years

California has long been battling its worst drought in 1200 years, a crisis that has already hit the state’s farmers and the economy that depends on them. The state is facing one of the most severe droughts on record, with a State of Emergency announced in January 2015 and action already being taken to prepare for water shortages.

Drought in California

Drought in California

With record-breaking heat affecting much of the State, Californians are having to get used to conserving their water, reducing their consumption by at least 27% under new emergency water conservation regulations.

As you can imagine, the resulting political and social conditions have become highly contentious. For example, water politics is coming to the fore as residents of Westlands,a fast-drying stretch of US farmland, try to cope with the changes. Here, the land is becoming ever-more laden with naturally occurring salts and the toxic trace element selenium. The parched terrain was once uninhabitable desert, and only the efforts of mankind turned it into arable land. Now it might end up reverting to desert, partly because there just isn’t enough spare water available to keep it fertile.

Australia baking under a relentless sun

Then there’s the Australian drought, the latest in a series of worsening water crises. In the second half of 1991 an incredibly severe drought hit Queensland, becoming the worst on record during ’94 and ’95. By October 1994 part of the Darling River system had completely collapsed and the Condamine River had turned into a sad series of muddy puddles.

From July to August 1995 things got even worse as a particularly strong El Nino weather pattern drove temperatures even higher, so hot that very few wheat and barley crops survived and the state had to import 50% of their grain from other parts of the country.

Then came the 2000s drought, named the Millennium drought, widely thought to be the worst since white people colonised Australia. 2006 proved the driest year on record for many parts of the country and the horror continued until late 2009. This time the drought wasn’t considered officially over until May 2012.

Drought in Australia

Drought in Australia

Australia’s Federal Government handed out a massive $4.5 billion in drought support. But the dry spell’s environmental legacy lives on, for example at Lake Albert where, like in the USA, the waters are still extremely salty, surrounded by acid soils and salt-ruined groundwater.

How does climate change affect air travel?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency says it all. They admit climate changes “may impact airplanes, airports, and airstrips, affecting air travel and infrastructure.”

  • Extreme heat results in restrictions, flight delays and cancellations. The same goers for increased flooding and high winds, both of which are being predicted by many climate change models. Storms can force entire airports to close, and these events are also thought to be becoming more common and more severe as a result of climate change.
  • In addition to airport closures and flight delays flooding can damage facilities, including airstrips. Some of the US’ busiest airports have been built in low-lying coastal areas vulnerable to flooding, including huge hubs like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. And current predictions for climate change-driven sea level rises put both Newark and LaGuardia airports at risk of storm surges.
  • Then there’s ice… or a lack of it. Many of Alaska’s remote airstrips in Alaska are built on permafrost. When it melts the ground subsides, potentially damaging the foundation and structure of the airports and eventually leading to extra expense, rebuilding or even relocation.

In fact there’s only one bright side to a warmer climate: apparently warmer winter weather will cut the need for aircraft de-icing.

Will there be enough water to support airports’ needs?

As temperatures rise, people and animals need more water to thrive. Many important economic activities, including creating the energy we need to travel, require water. As the planet warms the amount of water available for these activities will probably be cut. If you don’t have enough water on your airport site, for instance, to put out big fires, can you really carry on providing safe air travel services? Or will you have to give up and close down?

Many areas of the USA, especially in the west, already face water supply issues, along with growing demand. The west of the nation experienced less rain than ever during the past 50 years, and the resulting droughts have got worse and lasted longer. It’s a scary pattern. As the EPA says in an online example:

“The Colorado River system is a major source of water supply for the Southwest. It supplies water for more than 30 million people in the cities of Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Denver. Recent droughts, reductions in winter precipitation, and warmer, drier springs have caused water supplies in Colorado River reservoirs to decrease. Expected climate change impacts on Colorado River water supply include increased year-to-year changes in water storage in reservoirs are possible, even under current conditions.”

What if climate change gets really extreme?

Most of the effects of climate change we see at the moment are inconvenient and awkward rather than life threatening. But humans are fragile. We die if it gets a couple of degrees too cold. Give us a heatwave and thousands of us drop like flies.

If equatorial and desert areas heat up as dramatically as many scientists predict they’ll eventually become uninhabitable, which means a lot of the exotic places we currently travel to on holiday will be too hot for human life to survive. If anything is set to affect air travel, it’s that!

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In the meantime, we hope you enjoy your flights to wonderful, exotic, hot and sunny places. Unless the human race manages to tip the balance, we might not be able to visit them safely by the time we reach the next century.

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