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What climate change could do to transatlantic flights

A British Airways 747 approaches Heathrow airport over Richmond in west London, June 19, 2015.

REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

An unexpected impact of climate change could result in longer, more expensive, and more turbulent transatlantic flights from London to New York. A new study published in Environmental Research Letters suggests that warming global temperatures are affecting atmospheric wind patterns, which, in turn, affects air travel routes.

"When we think of global warming, we're usually thinking about the fact that it's getting warmer at ground level, but in fact the temperatures are changing higher up in the atmosphere, too, including where planes fly at 35,000 feet," the lead author, atmospheric scientist Paul Williams, said in a video included with the study.

Williams and colleagues at the University of Reading in the UK found other impacts of climate change on air travel include increased turbulence, increased take-off weight restrictions, and additional fuel burning as a result of longer flight times.

To determine exactly how warming temperatures would affect flights, the researchers fed synthetic atmospheric wind fields that were generated from climate model simulations into the kind of routing algorithm that would normally be used by flight planners. This created a series of flight scenarios under different temperature conditions.

The researchers wanted to find out what would happen to flights between the two cities when the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is doubled from pre-industrial levels -- something that is projected to happen by the year 2050 unless efforts are made to aggressively curb current emissions.

The scientists determined that the resulting strengthening of jet-stream winds would shorten eastbound flights slightly, while westbound flights got significantly longer -- an overall increase of about one minute in flight time roundtrip. According to the study, aircraft would be collectively airborne for an additional 2,000 hours each year, which would result in burning 7.2 million extra gallons of fuel, an additional cost estimated at $22 million a year.

And of course, burning this amount of jet fuel would release even more harmful carbon emissions into the atmosphere -- an estimated 70 million kilograms (154.3 million pounds) of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of 7,100 average British homes, the researchers said.

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