Skip to main content

Hate air travel? Then you should really hate climate change

climate change effect on air travel polish airlines
Pieter Beens / Shutterstock
If you deplane from a transoceanic flight thinking that you couldn’t possibly handle another minute aboard the aircraft, we’ve got bad news for you. Thanks to climate change, air travel is taking longer, getting more expensive, and polluting more, contributing to a vicious cycle that will likely magnify all these negative effects as time goes on. According to scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Wisconsin Madison, shifts in the jet stream — a name given to the high-altitude winds that blow from west to east — are making planning efficient flight routes more and more difficult as things in the air get more unpredictable.

In their study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers examined the flight times of four major airlines on routes that took them between Honolulu and Los Angeles, Seattle-Tacoma, and San Francisco from 1995 to 2013. Ultimately, they concluded that fluctuations caused by two ocean-atmosphere phenomena, the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the Arctic Oscillation, were responsible for nearly 90 percent of travel time variance. In total, 133 additional hours were added per year, averaging out to about a minute per flight.

While this may not seem like much, the major takeaway from the research is that the aviation industry is impacting weather patterns, which may lead to further and more dangerous implications as time goes on. Kristopher Karnauskas, the study’s author and a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, told Time magazine of these effects, “…you have the potential for pretty huge changes in fuel expense across the world. I’m not saying that climate change is going to cause the global flights to be longer, they might even be shorter. 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.”

Wind speeds fluctuated by around 40 miles per hour, and so while Karnauskas and his team only looked at a few routes taken by a few airlines, he noted, “… multiply those couple of minutes by each flight per day, by each carrier, by each route, and that residual adds up quickly. We’re talking millions of dollars in changes in fuel costs.”

Of course, more research is still needed to fully understand the implications of these findings, but suffice it to say that the effects of global warming are becoming ever more far reaching, and ever more concerning.

Editors' Recommendations

Lulu Chang
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Fascinated by the effects of technology on human interaction, Lulu believes that if her parents can use your new app…
Why are people striking because of climate change? Here’s a summary
Global Climate Strike

People all over the world are participating in September 20’s global climate strikes. They’re taking place in cities from Alice Springs, Australia to Jakarta, Indonesia to New York City. Police estimate 100,000 protesters gathered around Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. 

A coalition of organizations worked to raise awareness about the strikes, but it started with children and young adults. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, who recently testified before a congressional committee, gained fame for her three-week sit-in outside the Swedish Parliament to protest its lack of action on climate change. She continued weekly strikes, and other school kids around the world started joining her for Fridays for Future. In an interview with Teen Vogue, Thunberg asked people to imagine themselves looking back on today in 20 to 30 years. “Do you want to be able to say that you did fight against it and tried to push for a change early on?” she said. “Or do you want to say that, ‘No, I just went on going like everyone else because it was too uncomfortable.’”

Read more
Genetically modified plants could help get to the root of climate change
salk modified plants deeper roots plant with

Gene identified that will help develop plants to fight climate change

There’s not going to be one singular solution to solve the problem of climate change. In reality, it’s going to take a multi-pronged approach encapsulating everything from reducing our individual carbon footprints to potentially more drastic solutions such as geoengineering. Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California have another approach to add to the pile -- and it’s one that involves genetic modification.

Read more
Changing some code on YouTube could help lower its carbon footprint
google defends fair use on youtube against dmca

The idea of saving the planet by changing a bit of code on YouTube sounds, on face value, kind of crazy. But it could actually make a surprising amount of difference to the quantities of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere -- and it wouldn’t even involve much of a change to the overall user experience.

According to researchers at the U.K.’s University of Bristol, YouTube videos carry a carbon footprint of around 10 million tons of CO2 equivalent each year. That number, caused by the amount of electric energy used to power the data centers servers which provide YouTube streaming videos to the world, is equivalent to the total carbon footprint of Rhode Island.

Read more