Global warming might be creating a vicious cycle of rising temperatures as its effects exacerbate its causes.
Strong winds caused by extreme weather are fuelling this rise as planes spend longer in the air battling them and that extra time in the air contributes to global warming, a new report reveals.
According to the study, there are approximately 30,000 commercial flights per day in the US. If the total round-trip flying time changed by one minute, commercial jets would be in the air approximately 300,000 hours longer per year. This translates to approximately one billion additional gallons of jet fuel, which costs an extra billion and 22 billion lbs of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted per year.
‘Upper level wind circulation patterns are the major factor in influencing flight times,’ said Dr. Kris Karnauskas, associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
“Longer flight times mean increased fuel consumption by airliners. The consequent additional input of CO2 into the atmosphere can feed back and amplify emerging changes in atmospheric circulation. We already know that as you add CO2 to the atmosphere and the global mean temperature rises, the wind circulation changes as well – and in less obvious ways. The airline industry keeps a close eye on the day-to-day weather patterns, but they don’t seem to be concerned with cycles occurring over a year or longer.” said Dr. Karnauskas. “”They never say “Dear customer, there’s an El Niño brewing, so we’ve lengthened your estimated flight duration by 30 minutes.” I’ve never seen that.””
Passenger jets contribute 3.5 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions globally according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but changes in wind speeds as a result of global warming can cause aircraft to burn more fuel, which in turn accelerates climate change. An interesting thing to consider is that one transatlantic flight can add as much to your carbon footprint as a typical year’s worth of driving.
Comparing 20 years of US flight data to recorded wind speeds, the researchers showed that the atmospheric circulation affects how long planes are in the air.
After smoothing out the seasonal differences, 91 per cent of variation in flight times could be explained by flight-level wind speed, the researchers said.
The result also pointed toward the influence of the El Niño weather pattern. As the temperature of the equatorial Pacific Ocean rises and falls, atmospheric waves are set off toward the higher latitudes of both hemispheres, where they can change circulation patterns. Just by looking at the state of the tropical Pacific Ocean, Dr. Kris Karnauskas claims he could predict what the airline’s flight time had been. “We’re talking about anomalies happening down at the equator that are affecting the atmosphere in such a spatially broad way that it’s probably influencing flights all around the world,” he said.
The researchers also found that while the jet stream blows west to east, when an eastbound flight became 10 minutes shorter, the corresponding westbound flight became 11 minutes longer, meaning effects were not cancelled out.
The study, published in Nature Climate Change said that while minor for each flight, the cumulative cost is huge for major airlines…and our planet.