Last month, Phoenix enduring a blistering heat wave, with temperatures so high that airport officials had to cancel dozens of flights. The reason was two-fold. First off, some jet engines risk catching on fire in extreme heat. And when air gets hot, it expands and becomes less dense—so an airplane’s wings can’t generate enough lift to get off the ground. Planes either need to speed up during take-off or use a longer runway.
But Phoenix’s flight delays aren’t a one-off event. As the Earth’s climate undergoes a 1 to 3 degree Celsius warming over the next half-century, extreme heat waves will hit more frequently. Some of these heat waves will hit airports with short runways. Forget about rain delays or missing flight crews. At places like Washington’s Reagan National Airport, New York’s LaGuardia Airport, and Dubai International, the real trouble will come during heat waves.
During the hottest part of the day, 10 to 30 percent of planes will have to offload cargo or people, according to a new study by graduate student Ethan Coffell and climate scientist Radley Horton at Columbia University. “This study shined a light on a potential vulnerability,” Horton says. “A lot of airplanes at full capacity are ill-equipped to take off on some of the world’s runways when temperatures get really high.”