A different perspective on climate change- how changes in our climate may affect aviation

shutterstock_47840761_Climate change

The link goes both ways

When most people hear the words ‘climate change’ and ‘aviation’ in one sentence, they tend to think of the impacts that the aviation industry has on anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change. However, at the Met Office we are also interested in how changes in our climate may affect aviation.

So, how does climate change affect Aviation?

Climate change can be defined as a large-scale, long-term shift in our planet’s weather patterns. Therefore changes in our climate may have more permanent consequences on flight operations, whether at airports or in the en-route phase of flight.

On the ground…

The latest ‘State of the Global Climate’ report revealed 2015 to have had the largest increase yet of global surface temperatures compared to pre-industrial levels. High-confidence projections show a continued rise in our global temperatures into the future. But how do warmer temperatures affect aviation? There are a range of possible impacts, such as through an increased risk of fuel flashpoints being reached or tarmac standards being exceeded, whether on the runway or on airport access roads. Take-off distances may also be affected, as increasing the temperature causes a decrease in the air density and so a reduced lift force, meaning the possible need for longer runways or lighter aircraft in future. This is of particular importance for airports in warmer parts of the world or those situated at higher altitudes. Many of these impacts can be addressed through appropriate adaptation planning, but with our changing climate there is a need for a better understanding of these risks.

En-route…

Although impacts at airports are critical, we must not forget changes in conditions en-route, especially as air traffic continues to grow. With a warming climate, more moisture in the atmosphere is expected and, consequently, more convective activity. With our growing air traffic demands, this would likely lead to more weather avoidance and re-routing particularly through busy airspace.

Studies have shown there to have been an observed poleward shift in the North Atlantic jet stream, which can affect transatlantic route planning, although there remains to be some degree of uncertainty in the future changes of the jet position. Other recent research has suggested that climate change and could lead an increase in severe (clear-air) turbulence events over the North Atlantic due to the effects on the jet stream, although this again is in an early stage of research.

Changing behaviours

Back on the ground, weather is often a big factor when choosing our preferred holiday destinations and so climate change could even lead to gradual differences in flight demand along particular routes – although of course many other factors are involved here.

This aims to give you a taste of some of the wide-ranging impacts climate change can have on the aviation industry, but there are many additional impacts to also consider from other factors such as changes in precipitation so watch this space.

Claire Bartholomew, Aviation Scientist

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