Study: global warming leads to longer flights and more emissions

Climate change is causing wind patterns over the Pacific to alter, according to a study by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution published last Monday. The study, in the journal Nature Climate Change, concludes that the wind change is leading to longer westbound flight times for commercial airliners between mainland USA and Hawaii, which is causing them to burn more fuel and emit more greenhouse gases.  Faster eastbound times do not cancel out the effect – eastbound flights became 10 minutes shorter, yet the corresponding westbound flight became 11 minutes longer.

“Normally, when we think about the airline industry and climate change, we think about how global aviation contributes to climate change through such means as carbon dioxide and aerosol emissions — and for good reason,” study lead author Kristopher Karnauskas said. “However, in our study, we’re flipping this around. We’re trying to probe the extent to which climate change might influence the airline industry beginning with shorter-term natural cycles that we can readily observe with existing real-world data.”

In Brief
  • Global air travel contributes around 3.5 percent of the greenhouse gases driving anthropogenic climate change, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
  • According to the study the changing Pacific winds could increase total global emissions by 0.03 percent.
  • According to the study, there are approximately 30,000 commercial flights per day in the U.S. If the total round–trip flying time changed by an average of one minute, the amount of time commercial jets would spend in the air would change by approximately 300,000 hours per year. This translates to approximately 1 billion gallons of jet fuel, which is approximately $3 billion in fuel cost, and 10 billion kilograms of CO2 emitted, per year.
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