When it's too hot to fly

We’re used to blizzards disrupting winter travel plans, or hurricanes interrupting summer vacations, but what about travel delays due to excessive heat?

That’s what greeted many air travelers in the Southwest on the first day of summer. An oppressive heat wave across California, Arizona, and Nevada sent temperatures as high as 120 degrees. In Phoenix, American Airlines canceled dozens of flights because higher temperatures mean thinner air, which makes it more difficult for smaller planes to take off.

When scientists talk about trying to limit global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, non-scientists may hear, “It could be 2 degrees hotter.” But that’s not what climate change means. Rising average temperatures go hand in hand with longer, more intense, and more common extreme heat waves.

A recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that global warming has increased the severity and probability of the hottest day or month at more than 80 percent of places on Earth. Globally, 2017 has been the second-warmest year to date on record. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sees a greater than average chance of above-normal temperatures in most of the country in July.

Heat waves can cost dollars, like the financial impacts of lost work productivity and flight cancellations, not to mention increased cooling costs for homes and businesses.

Climate impacts can also cost lives. Hyperthermia, or prolonged high body temperature, is blamed for the deaths of an elderly man and woman in San Jose, California, which had a week of 103-degree temperatures. In New Mexico, extreme heat is believed to have played a role in the deaths of a father and son who were hiking at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. A 1995 heat wave in Chicago was blamed for hundreds of deaths, and thousands of deaths across Europe were attributed to a 2003 heat wave.

The risks of heat-related deaths don’t apply to everyone equally. The elderly and people with chronic medical conditions are more at risk. People with low incomes are less likely to have air-conditioning. People in urban areas with vast stretches of heat-absorbing concrete and asphalt also experience the heat island effect, which can increase evening temperatures as much as 22 degrees Fahrenheit above surrounding areas.

More lives may be put at risk if carbon pollution continues at its current rate. Research published this month in the journal Nature Climate Change found that even with drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, more than half the world’s population could be exposed to deadly heat waves by 2100.

Improving climate resilience is one way to avoid these fatal consequences. The options range from traditional emergency response actions like expanding the availability of cooling centers to traditional sustainability actions like planting more trees in urban areas to reduce the heat island effect.

To give these resilience steps a better chance of reducing the impact of increasing temperatures, society also needs to reduce the heat-trapping emissions causing the problem in the first place. That’s why it is so important that many cities, states, and companies are expanding their use of clean energy and transportation.

A recent survey by C2ES and The U.S. Conference of Mayors found that cities and their business communities want to work together to address climate change, and identified several ways they can do so. The C2ES Solutions Forum offers businesses and state and local governments opportunities for such collaboration.

But more needs to be done, faster, to address the serious consequences of a changing climate.