Last updated: 11:05 AM ET, Tue July 21 2015

Study Discovers Feedback Loop Between Air Travel, Climate Change

Airlines & Airports | Patrick Clarke | July 21, 2015

Study Discovers Feedback Loop Between Air Travel, Climate Change

A recent study published in Nature Climate Change reveals new data suggesting that air travel and climate change are linked in a cause-and-effect circuit.

The main takeaway from the research is that a warming climate alters wind patterns, in turn lengthening long-haul flight times, which results in more jet fuel being burned and more greenhouse gases being emitted. 

Researchers analyzed the departure and arrival times of every flight between Honolulu and Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle over the past 20 years. After plotting the differences in eastbound and westbound flight times and determining the lone factor, researchers formed their hypothesis that long-term climate variability was impacting flight time.

Diving deeper, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution research team found that monthly flight time difference and average wind speed index were closely connected. 

"It was striking how well correlated they were even when we averaged out the weather, different carriers and climate variables," said WHOI associate scientist Kristopher Karnauskas via IEEE Spectrum

In analyzing nearly three dozen global climate models, researchers calculated that the projected increase in west-to-east wind speeds would add roughly 5.5 flying hours to each daily round-trip, per carrier, per route, per year. The result for the four airlines flying the routes would be an estimated combined annual cost of $1.4 million on fuel and 4.6 million kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions.

Still, the current data only takes into account those aforementioned routes over the Pacific Ocean.

"I'm not saying that climate change is going to cause the global flights to be longer, they might even be shorter," Karnauskas told TIME. "But if you change the amount of time that planes are in the air and how much fuel is burned on annual basis by the aviation industry, that's a feedback."


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