John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A scientist says global warming could trigger delays and extend Europe-to-America journeys.
If there’s one thing to get more people concerned about climate change, is it the possibility it will lengthen intercontinental flights full of weird smells and screaming tots?
Probably not, but longer flights might be a looming reality for people traveling from London to New York, according to a new study in Environmental Research Letters. A doubling of atmospheric CO2 could speed up the jet stream—that lofty, east-flowing wind that controls so much of our weather. That means pilots could leap into it and shorten their mean cruising time between Heathrow and JFK by 4 minutes. Conversely, planes traveling from Heathrow to JFK will battle stronger winds and see times extended by more than 5 minutes, according to Paul Williams, a research fellow in the meteorology department at the U.K.’s University of Reading.
That might not seem like a huge inconvenience for individuals, although anybody who's battled a crabby passenger using a “Knee Defender” might disagree. But the cumulative effect could be damaging on economic and environmental scales, according to the study.
”Even assuming no future growth in aviation, the extrapolation of our results to all transatlantic traffic suggests that aircraft will collectively be airborne for an extra 2,000 [hours] each year,” Williams predicts, “burning an extra 7.2 million gallons of jet fuel at a cost of US$ 22 million, and emitting an extra 70 million kg of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of 7,100 average British homes.”
The University of Reading says in a press release that “New York-bound flights will become twice as likely to take over 7 [hours], suggesting that delayed arrivals will become increasingly common.” A couple important notes: This research considers only time spent at cruising level and omits ascents and descents. (The complete slog from London to New York can be more than 8 hours.) The effects of climate change on the jet stream are still being debated. Likewise the date when atmospheric CO2 is expected to double—the university claims it “will occur within the next few decades unless emissions are cut quickly.”
Still, Williams believes airplanes are already experiencing the impact of global warming. “The early stages of this strengthening perhaps contributed to a well-publicised transatlantic crossing from New York to London on 8 January 2015,” he writes, “which took a record time of only 5 h 16 min because of a strong tailwind from an unusually fast jet stream.”