Flying the not-so-friendly skies

NB: This “sample” post of 680 words explores one dimension of Life Plus 2 Meters. Many perspectives are valid!

The 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano led to the cancellation of flights in 20 countries and delays for 10 million passengers. The interruptions highlighted our dependence on moving people and things by air. The economic “loss” from 7 days of cancelled flights totalled approximately 1.7 billion USD. Thankfully, nobody was killed by high winds, low visibility or increased air pollution.

The "new normal" of Texas weather?
“New normal” weather for Dallas, Texas? Source

My girlfriend and I experienced a different kind of delay in December 2013 when Dallas airport was closed down by “unexpected” snowfall. Our trip from Vancouver to the Galapagos was saved, thankfully, by rerouting via Miami.

Air travel has a disproportionate impact on climate change because its GHG emissions occur at high altitudes, but air travel also brings disproportionate benefits to many. Most people in the developed world fly to do business, see family, and enjoy vacations. The falling cost of air travel means that many people in developing countries are joining them.

The sad news is that the delays and dangers of air travel are going to increase in the future. Although Life plus 2 Meters is unlikely to mean more volcanic eruptions, it is going to deliver similar interruptions in a different pattern. Increasing GHG concentrations are warming the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans at different rates. Changed heat patterns are affecting the rate of glacial melting and the circulation of water between the ocean’s surface and depths. Those impacts are, in turn, affecting the mighty currents that circulate water between the tropics and polar regions. Hansen et al (2016) predict — based on models, paleo-climate evidence, and extrapolation of current ocean temperatures and currents — that the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) will slow and shut down in the next few decades. The AMOC — by moving water from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic — modulates temperatures and storms in the North Atlantic. We can expect, therefore, more extreme temperatures and storms without the AMOC.

Colder winters and stronger storms will force humans, activities and infrastructure into unfamiliar territory. Impacts will be felt at all levels and sectors of society as “weird weather” disrupts agriculture, tests heating and power infrastructure, stresses ecosystems, and forces people to revisit habits of work and life, but the rest of this post will focus on air travel.

Temperature extremes are going to disrupt and endanger air travel. In northern latitudes, planes will need to “de-ice” more often, airports will face more snow and ice, and softer materials — everything from rubber to human skin — will need to be protected or replaced. More, stronger storms will increase risks from lightning strikes, floods and updrafts that will make it harder for planes to maneuver, take-off, fly and land. The situation might be worse in the tropics if hurricanes and rising sea levels attack airports from above and below. (This article discusses vulnerabilities at 14 major American airports, including 5 in the tropics.)

Strained and broken equipment and systems will increase danger for passengers, so flight schedules will need to be padded to cope with delays and cancellations. These changes will add to the cost of air tickets as well as the risk of travel. Airports in poorer areas may have to shut down if adaptation is too expensive, increasing social distance and economic inequality.

People will cope in different ways. Virtual business meetings will become more common, family reunions less frequent. Deaths will increase from current levels (117 per billion journeys, better than motorcycles but worse than cars) to higher levels. Innovations in technology and best practices will reduce or perhaps even overcome these losses, but “perfect storms” of bad conditions will surprise and kill us. Runways will buckle or crumble into sinkholes, short-circuits will leave planes blind, turbulence will turn planes into roller coasters.

Liquid fossil fuels are particularly well suited for flying, so they are unlikely to be replaced by “sustainable” alternatives, but that detail is unlikely to matter to people worried about iced jets chopping through turbulence to land on a runway that may hide a fatal pothole. The future of flying is more likely to be affected by outside changes that make the skies not-as-friendly to fly.


dz_smDavid Zetland is an assistant professor at Leiden University College, where he teaches various classes on economics. He received his PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics from UC Davis in 2008. He blogs on water, economics and politics at aguanomics.com, has two books (The End of Abundance: economic solutions to water scarcity and Living with Water Scarcity), gives many talks to public, professional and academic audiences, and writes for popular and academic outlets. David lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “Flying the not-so-friendly skies”

  1. Dear David,
    What is the significance of the name of your project “Life Plus 2 Meters” ?

    1. Dear Anupam,
      To help people discuss and understand a climate changed world and how to live in (adapt to) it.

  2. (via email from SZ): I think you missed one of the likely consequences of the additional 2 meters on air travel – many major airports are located on coasts close sea level (some will be underwater) and other may be on higher ground, but the roads for transport to/from the airport won’t bet.

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