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Climate Change and the Impact of Extreme Temperatures on Aviation

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  • 1 Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, New York, New York
  • | 2 Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University, New York, New York
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Abstract

Temperature and airport elevation significantly influence the maximum allowable takeoff weight of an aircraft by changing the surface air density and thus the lift produced at a given speed. For a given runway length, airport elevation, and aircraft type, there is a temperature threshold above which the airplane cannot take off at its maximum weight and thus must be weight restricted. The number of summer days necessitating weight restriction has increased since 1980 along with the observed increase in surface temperature. Climate change is projected to increase mean temperatures at all airports and to significantly increase the frequency and severity of extreme heat events at some. These changes will negatively affect aircraft performance, leading to increased weight restrictions, especially at airports with short runways and little room to expand. For a Boeing 737-800 aircraft, it was found that the number of weight-restriction days between May and September will increase by 50%–200% at four major airports in the United States by 2050–70 under the RCP8.5 emissions scenario. These performance reductions may have a negative economic effect on the airline industry. Increased weight restrictions have previously been identified as potential impacts of climate change, but this study is the first to quantify the effect of higher temperatures on commercial aviation. Planning for changes in extreme heat events will help the aviation industry to reduce its vulnerability to this aspect of climate change.

Corresponding author address: E. Coffel, 2880 Broadway, New York, NY 10025. E-mail: ec2959@columbia.edu; rh142@columbia.edu.

Abstract

Temperature and airport elevation significantly influence the maximum allowable takeoff weight of an aircraft by changing the surface air density and thus the lift produced at a given speed. For a given runway length, airport elevation, and aircraft type, there is a temperature threshold above which the airplane cannot take off at its maximum weight and thus must be weight restricted. The number of summer days necessitating weight restriction has increased since 1980 along with the observed increase in surface temperature. Climate change is projected to increase mean temperatures at all airports and to significantly increase the frequency and severity of extreme heat events at some. These changes will negatively affect aircraft performance, leading to increased weight restrictions, especially at airports with short runways and little room to expand. For a Boeing 737-800 aircraft, it was found that the number of weight-restriction days between May and September will increase by 50%–200% at four major airports in the United States by 2050–70 under the RCP8.5 emissions scenario. These performance reductions may have a negative economic effect on the airline industry. Increased weight restrictions have previously been identified as potential impacts of climate change, but this study is the first to quantify the effect of higher temperatures on commercial aviation. Planning for changes in extreme heat events will help the aviation industry to reduce its vulnerability to this aspect of climate change.

Corresponding author address: E. Coffel, 2880 Broadway, New York, NY 10025. E-mail: ec2959@columbia.edu; rh142@columbia.edu.
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