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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Climate change and the impact of extreme temperatures on aviation

Authors:

Ethan Coffel

Radley Horton

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
2014
Secondary Title:
Weather, Climate, and Society
ISSN:
1948-8335
DOI:
10.1175/WCAS-D-14-00026.1
Pages:
141110132250008
Year:
2014
Date:
11/2014

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 (Anderson 1999). 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 significantly increase the frequency and severity of extreme heat events at some (Scherer and Diffenbaugh 2013; Donat et al. 2013; IPCC 2012). 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, we find 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 2050-2070 under the RCP8.5 emissions scenario (Moss et al. 2010). 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 (National Research Council 2008; US Global Change Research Program 2009), 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.