New research links climate change and longer flights: What's the real meaning?

Scientists are predicting that climate change will increase flight times between Europe and the United States. But with the changes being measured in mere minutes, what is the real significance of the new research?

Andrew Vaughan/AP/File
An Air Canada Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet departs Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Enfield, Nova Scotia on Friday, May 23, 2014.

New research published Wednesday suggests that flight times across the Atlantic will be impacted by alterations to the jet stream, caused by climate change.

Much of the coverage of this new study focuses on those increased journey times – likely to be only a matter of minutes per flight – and the subsequent financial cost to the airlines and the consumer.

But, in the midst of a saga as pervasive and infamous as climate change, is there deeper significance to be gleaned?

“This work isn't just about the airline bottom lines or the price of airfare to the consumer,” says Kris Karnauskas of the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences department, University of Colorado, in an email interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “This is about trying to understand the complex feedbacks involved in climate change.”

The study itself, published in Environmental Research Letters, discusses the overall increase in jet fuel consumption predicted by the research, and the pollutants being spewed into the skies, stating that the reduction in flight times in one direction is insufficient to cancel out the increase going the opposite way.

“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, 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,” writes Paul Williams of the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, United Kingdom, in the abstract of the study.

Dr. Williams says there's a “the two-way interaction between aviation and climate change,” which brings us to the nub of this research: the vicious circle of positive feedback loops.

“That's the problem we're grappling with here,” Dr. Karnauskas tells the Monitor. “Will the CO2 rise (and concomitant climate change impacts including sea level rise, food security, etc.) only be as bad as what we emit directly, or will there be feedbacks that are set in motion to make the CO2 rise more than anticipated? If climate change – caused by our CO2  emissions – causes jetliners to be flying longer, that would exacerbate the CO2  emissions and potentially cause a snowball effect.”

This research is the latest in a long line of studies looking at the relationship between aviation and climate change.

At first glance, it may seem as though there is something of an imbalance, whereby such a specific theme receives so much attention.

“It is a fair point to mention this is just one small aspect of a huge problem,” says Manoj Joshi, Senior Lecturer in Climate Dynamics at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “It does seem to get a lot of media attention, and it focuses very much on the first world, and in this case on financial impacts on airlines, when there are huge issues to be considered like food security.”

Dr. Joshi, who published a similar study in 2013 with Williams, the author of this new research, goes on to point out, however, that “the whole problem of climate change is the sum of so many parts,” and that every insight we gain, into any facet of the situation, helps us.

“Conceptually, it’s interesting,” he adds, “that the changes we see five to 10 kilometers up are different to what we might expect at the surface.”

What of the future? Where might these insights lead researchers next?

“In [the] future, I plan to study other flight routes,” says Williams, in an email interview with The Monitor. “Although the North Atlantic flight corridor is one of the world's busiest, it represents just a small fraction of the global flights taken daily. It would be fascinating to see if other flight routes are similarly affected.”

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