Transatlantic Flights Are Going To Get Even Worse

Flying is no picnic. But a new study suggests accelerations in the jet stream due to climate change may make transatlantic flights take even longer

Japan Airlines flies past a factory’s chimney — (REUTERS)
Feb 11, 2016 at 5:18 PM ET

Climate change is about to make something un-fun—transatlantic flights—even less fun. According to a new study published in Environmental Research Letters, planes flying between Europe and North America will likely face delays, higher costs and longer travel times due to shifts in high-altitude winds, the authors report, ultimately keeping westbound aircraft aloft for a cumulative additional 2,000 hours per year. This vicious cycle could add even more carbon to the atmosphere, and make New York-bound flights nearly twice as likely to take more than seven hours.

“The bad news for passengers is that westbound flights will be battling against stronger headwinds,” said Paul Williams PhD, atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading in the UK, an coauthor on the study, in a statement. “This effect will increase the fuel costs to airlines, potentially raising ticket prices, and it will worsen the environmental impacts of aviation.”

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Air travel isn’t our biggest climate concern. Studies have shown that commercial aircraft are only responsible for about two percent of human carbon emissions, although if airplanes need to spend more time in the air due to changing winds, that number could easily increase. But how exactly climate change can affect high-altitude winds requires a brief introduction to climate science and the jet stream.

High-altitude winds known as jet streams move weather systems across the globe. Smart pilots hop on these jet streams to shave precious hours off transatlantic flights, especially when flying west to east. In fact, some estimates suggest more than 600 flights per day hitch a ride on the eastbound jet stream. But the same forces that make travel from New York to London faster slow down return trips; your plane is then fighting the same winds that pushed it forward when flying east. It’s easy to see how a drastic change in that essential commuter route could cause problems for air traffic.

Now, there’s no concrete evidence of changes in the jet stream—yet. But climate scientists say it’s only a matter of time. “We know what drives the jet stream,” Williams told the BBC. “It’s the temperature difference between the warm tropical regions and the cold polar regions at flight levels.” Naturally, that temperature difference is becoming more and more pronounced due to climate change. “We are very confident that the jet stream is increasing as a consequence,” Williams says.

For this study, Williams and his team examined the effects of doubling the amount carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as a hypothetical window into what sort of emissions we might expect by 2050. They then fed those numbers in a mathematical model, and determined that the temperature difference between tropical and polar regions would, in that scenario, make eastbound flights slightly faster, but make westbound flights take significantly longer. Whatever would be gained by slightly quicker eastbound flights would be lost in much slower westbound flights. The result, the study suggests, is that transatlantic flights will spend more time in the air, burn an extra $22 million worth of fuel every year and emit an extra 70 million kg of carbon dioxide—the same emissions as 7,100 British homes.

And that’s only if you count transatlantic flights. Williams and his team entertain the possibility that messing with the jet stream could delay other flights, too. “The jet stream encircles the globe, and there is one in the southern hemisphere too,” Williams said in a statement. “It is possible that flights elsewhere in the world will also suffer from a similar jet stream effect.”