Like Airport Delays? You'll Love Climate Change

Memo to everyone who doesn’t care about climate change—you know who you are—because you figure 1) more heat waves? I have A.C.; 2) rising sea levels? I don’t live in Bangladesh, and I have enough money to keep rebuilding the sea walls around my weekend place; 3) more droughts and floods, causing food shortages? I won’t have any problem buying whatever I need. Scientists have identified consequences of climate change that you won’t be able to buy your way out of: the worst airplane delays you can imagine.

I’ve long thought that Americans don’t really care all that much about climate change because they figure its worst impacts will hit other people. In particular,the poor (Hurricane Katrina, anyone?). But a report by the National Research Council released today on how climate change will affect transportation points out that this is one environmental mess that you won’t be able to buy your way out of.

The biggest impact of climate change on transportation will be flooding of roads, railways and airport runways in coastal areas because of rising sea levels and storm surges (which will be more intense as a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture). Bridges and roads built to withstand the proverbial “100-year storm” will face such monsters more frequently, meaning there will likely be more catastrophes like bridges being washed away, as happened to the U.S. 90 Bridge after Katrina. Planning any scenic coastal drives? An estimated 60,000 miles of coastal highways are subject to storm flooding even today, and that will rise as storm intensity and sea levels do. Even better: many of these are the same highways that are supposed to serve as hurricane evacuation routes!

Remember the Midwest floods of 1993, which inundated towns, and transportation routes along 500 miles of the Mississippi and Missouri river systems? Get used to it. Major east–west traffic was halted for about six weeks from St. Louis west to Kansas City and north to Chicago, the report recounts, affecting one-quarter of all U.S. freight to or from the flooded region. But where the climate is projected to dry out, such as in watersheds supplying the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Great Lakes and the Upper Midwest river system, lower water levels will leave ships high and dry, like during the drought of 1988, when barges were stranded all along the Mississippi.

Do you like being stranded at work? Climate change will bring more 24-hour rainstorms such as the one that slammed Chicago and its suburbs in July 1996, causing huge travel delays on metro highways and railroads and damaging streets and bridges. “Commuters were unable to reach Chicago for up to 3 days,” the NRC report notes, “and more than 300 freight trains were delayed or rerouted.”

Now, about those airport delays. Heat extremes and heat waves will keep getting more intense, longer and more frequent. By 2032, the chance of five summer days in Dallas being at or above 110 o F. will be 5 percent, for instance, up from 2 percent today, and will be 25 percent in 50 years. Good news: airports won’t have as many days when they need to de-ice planes. Bad news: because hotter air is less dense than cooler air, extreme heat reduces aircraft lift, as I explained in a recent column. Concludes the NRC, “If runways are not sufficiently long for large aircraft to build up enough speed to generate lift, aircraft weight must be reduced or some flights cancelled altogether. Thus, increases in extreme heat are likely to result in payload restrictions, flight cancellations, and service disruptions at affected airports.”