How climate change is altering air travel

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Rising tides, icy air, melting permafrost and air that is too hot for take-off are challenging aviation as the world warms.

Fred Pearce | ensia

Phoenix gets hot. But not usually as hot as last June, when the mercury at the airport one day soared above 118 °F (48 °C). That exceeded the maximum operating temperature for several aircraft ready for take-off. They didn’t fly. More than 50 flights were canceled or rerouted.

Thanks to climate change, soon 118 °F may not seem so unusual. Welcome to the precarious future of aviation in a changing climate. As the world warms and weather becomes more extreme, aircraft designers, airport planners and pilots must all respond, both in the air and on the ground. With around 100,000 flights worldwide carrying some 8 million passengers every day, this is a big deal.

Hot Air

Why is heat a problem for planes? In a word: lift.

Lift is the upward force created by diverting air around wings as an aircraft moves down the runway. It is harder to achieve when the air is scorching hot, because hot air is thinner than cold air. The International Civil Aviation Organization warned in 2016 that as a result, higher temperatures “could have severe consequences for aircraft take-off performance.”

Aircraft will need to jettison passengers, cargo or fuel to get the same lift on a hot day, raising costs and requiring more flights.

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