Climate Change Is Making Travel That Much Harder
In June, Amtrak’s Albany, N.Y, to Montreal train route was cancelled due to excessive heat. Service was suspended because a 47-mile stretch of the trip took four hours after the train was forced to slow to 10 miles per hour. The speed restriction was imposed because temperatures above 86°F (30°C) can make the rails misalign and cause derailment. In July, rail service between Albany and New York City was suspended after heavy rains completely washed out the tracks near the city of Poughkeepsie.
The design of most of our transportation infrastructure was based on the climate of the mid-20th century. As climate change continues to warm the planet and make weather more extreme, much of that infrastructure will become less safe and reliable.
Some of today’s popular tourist destinations may become intolerable as heat waves make some places unbearable and increase the chance of forest fires. Some may disappear altogether as rising seas flood low-lying islands and coastal areas. Warming oceans have already resulted in bleached coral reefs. Shorter winters and less snow are cutting ski seasons. And extreme weather can damage a locale’s transportation and water supply infrastructure.
Climate change has the potential to disrupt air travel in a variety of ways. For one, high temperatures may hinder airplane takeoffs or even prevent them.
Higher temperatures make air less dense, so planes need to generate more lift by going faster to take off. In some cases, they might not have enough runway to achieve the necessary speed. Or they may be forced to reduce the weight they are carrying. Moreover, temperatures of 100 degrees F or more can cause tarmac to soften, causing aircraft wheels to get stuck. And because tarmac can turn into a heat island, high temperatures may also limit how long ground crews can work outside. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, 50 flights were grounded in Arizona in 2017 due to extreme heat. Without improvements to infrastructure, such as lengthening runways, this could mean 200 to 900 flights grounded by 2030, and 500 to 2,200 by 2050.
Once airborne, flights are already encountering more severe turbulence. Climate change is increasing changes in wind speed and direction above 15,000 feet in jet streams, the belts of wind that circle the planet. These changes are called wind shear; they result in sudden speed and altitude changes—in other words, turbulence. Since 1979, wind shear in the jet stream has increased by 15 percent. Turbulence is occurring even when there are few clouds and no bad weather. This so-called clear-air turbulence is not detectable by onboard weather radar or the naked eye, so it is unpredictable.
In March, severe turbulence on a flight from Austin, Tex., to Frankfurt, Germany injured seven people. Between 2009 and 2022, 163 serious injuries resulted from turbulence, according to The National Transportation Safety Board. One study projected that the frequency of clear-air turbulence in some places is expected to double by 2050 and intensify by 10 to 40 percent. Another estimated that climate change could increase severe turbulence by 149 percent within the next few decades.
Major airports are usually built where there are suitable wind conditions, and this often means near low-lying coastal areas.
One quarter of the world’s busiest airports are less than 10 meters above sea level; 12, including those of Shanghai and New York, are less than five meters above. As sea levels rise, storms intensify and storm surges increase, putting runways and other infrastructure at risk. Crews may be unable to reach the airport because ground transportation is affected.
Extreme cold snaps exacerbated by climate change can also impact air travel. All new planes are tested to ensure that they can endure extreme heat and cold, but if airplanes are not certified for the most extreme cold, flights can be cancelled. Extreme cold can make different metals of the aircraft, such as steel and aluminum, contract at different rates. Plastic and rubber parts can become brittle, and lubricants lose their effectiveness. If snow or ice accumulate on airplane wings, it may be harder for them to generate lift. This is why they are carefully de-iced and sprayed with anti-freeze. Severe cold weather can also limit the time that ground crews can work outside, and freeze fueling equipment.
In addition, if the operation of any one airport is disrupted due to climate change impacts, delays and cancellations can ripple across the entire network, especially if the affected airport is a hub.
In 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave aviation infrastructure a D+ grade. On top of this, to cope with the added challenges of a changing climate and weather extremes, airports will need extensive repairs and upgrades.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is struggling to modernize its air traffic control operations. In 2007, the FAA unveiled a multibillion dollar plan, Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) to replace outdated infrastructure with modern technology. However, NextGen is behind schedule and won’t be complete until 2030. In 2021, President Biden’s infrastructure act allotted $25 billion for aviation infrastructure, including $5 billion for air traffic control facilities and $20 billion for airports. This will be used to build more modern and resilient airport infrastructure that can better withstand climate change impacts.
While tracks are designed to operate within a wide range of temperatures, if temperatures exceed this range, tracks can become misaligned or buckle into what are called “sun kinks.”
Over the last 40 years, sun kinks in the U.S. caused more than 2,100 derailments. To lessen the stress on tracks, trains are made shorter, or are forced to carry less weight, or slow down. A 2019 study projected that by 2100, delays due to temperature could cost the U.S. rail system as much as $60 billion cumulatively.
Excess heat can also affect the overhead wires that power electric trains. High temperatures can make wires expand and droop, damaging the overhead equipment. Freezing temperatures with ice can weigh down wires, causing them to sag or fail.
Much of the U.S. rail system is over 100 years old, leaving some parts especially vulnerable to other impacts of climate change. When rail lines were designed, civil engineers used old construction standards. Moreover, they were designed using probabilistic estimates of rainfall intensities, most of which were from the 1960s and 1970s. Tracks designed on the basis of those estimates are at greater risk of flooding, which can erode embankments along the rails or cause landslides that block the tracks.
Roads and bridges
U.S. roads are usually made of asphalt or concrete. Asphalt is a mix of sand, ground up stone, and gravel bound together with bitumen, a sticky black form of petroleum. Asphalt absorbs heat, which can intensify the effect of hot temperatures, making roads so hot that they soften and can deform.
Concrete roads are made of 15- to 20-foot slabs of concrete with space in between to allow for expansion and contraction as temperatures change. If there isn’t enough space in the joints for expansion, however, a road can blow up. In 2021, when temperatures reached 90 degrees F in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, 45 road blowouts occurred as the pavement overheated and popped. One study estimated that U.S. road maintenance costs $134 billion each year. If climate change continues at its current pace, by 2050 this price tag could increase by $785 million.
Roads are buckling all over the world. A 2017 study found that by 2080, heat waves could be responsible for 92 percent of total damage of Europe’s roads and railways, because they are unsuited for rising temperatures. In addition, roads that were built on frozen permafrost are now cracking and warping as the permafrost thaws. And as dark asphalt absorbs the sun’s heat, it speeds permafrost thaw. One-fifth of the Qinghai-Tibet Highway in China has suffered damage as the road has become distorted and cracked. In Canada, 1,800 to 2,500 miles of roads that were built in permafrost areas are in danger of becoming unstable.
Higher temperatures can also cause bridges to expand. During the European heat wave of 2022, the Hammersmith Bridge in London had to be wrapped in reflective insulation foil to prevent the metal from cracking.
In coastal regions subject to high tides and storm surge exacerbated by sea level rise, more than 60,000 miles of U.S. roads and bridges are vulnerable to flooding. However, because roads can become impassable at just under a foot of water, roads anywhere can be inundated by extreme precipitation. Last summer, huge floods in Yellowstone National Park caused rockslides and mudslides and washed out roads and bridges. Earlier this month, heavy rains in Chicago caused life-threatening flooding; sections of two interstate highways were closed down with ten cars trapped in water. And just this week, extreme rainfall and flooding washed out many roads in Vermont and New York.
Cruise ships and coastal tourism
Cruise ship tourism has a larger carbon footprint than any other kind of travel; a cruise can emit nine times more carbon per passenger than flying across the Atlantic Ocean. And extreme weather such as intense hurricanes and storms is making cruising more dangerous, and causing delays and cancellations. Rising sea levels can make it difficult for cruise ships to dock at coastal ports because they are vulnerable to changing sea levels, as well as extreme weather. Rising seas also degrade beaches. For example, a sea-level rise of one meter could damage 49 to 60 percent of Caribbean resorts. And sea-level rise poses significant risks to the very viability of some low-lying cruise destinations, such as Key West, Fla., Fiji, Palau, Seychelles, and the Maldives.
Coastal tourism, the largest component of the tourism industry, is threatened also by the acidification of oceans. Half of the world’s coral reefs, which contribute $11.5 billion annually to global tourism income each year, have already been lost or seriously damaged. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which has sustained serious damage from ocean acidification caused by the ocean’s uptake of CO2, coral bleaching, pollution, overfishing—and too much tourism—has lost more than half of its corals since 1995. One study projected that virtually all the world’s corals will experience severe bleaching by the end of the century if global warming continues on its current trajectory.
Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has always been vulnerable to flooding, but in the last 20 years, there have been almost as many “high water” floods as during the previous 100 years. In 2019, floods here caused one billion euros in damage in the second worst flood in its history.
The bad news for Venice, which is heavily dependent on tourism, is that seas could rise almost four feet by 2100, according to the European Geosciences Union. In other major cities, such as Amsterdam, Tokyo, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro and New York, extreme flooding could also become a regular occurrence.
What can travelers do?
“Embrace that you’re traveling in a world in turmoil,” said Thaddeus Pawlowski, director of the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia University. “I think we need to process that and make it part of the way our worldview changes as we travel to places that are facing turmoil.”
Here are suggestions for coping with travel in a world impacted by climate change:
- Choose locations less prone to the impacts of climate change.
- Research the climate and air quality of your destination. If you are traveling when temperatures are extreme, plan to minimize outdoor activities.
- If you are visiting a region that might experience extreme weather, pack for it: sunscreen, hats, appropriate clothes.
- When possible, travel during times of milder temperatures and less air pollution. Consider traveling in the “shoulder seasons”—the months between a region’s peak season and off-season.
- Keep travel plans flexible and consider how you would deal with delays or cancellations. Have alternative routes, transportation modes and accommodations ready just in case.
- Buy travel insurance that covers disruptions due to climate change even though it may be more expensive.
- Purchase refundable tickets.
- Travel as sustainably as possible: fly less and take public transportation.
- Find less-frequented destinations to visit.
- Choose local, plant-based meals.
- Travel slowly and stay longer.
- Support the local economy by choosing local sustainable businesses such as restaurants, guesthouses or locally owned hotels.
“I love to travel myself,” said Pawlowski, “But the truth is our travel has effects on the natural environment. Something like 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the tourism sector.” There are many experiences that people can enjoy closer to home, like an Amtrak ride or a mass transit ride away, said Pawlowski. “Promoting local economies in general is a very important form of climate action, on every level, from transportation, to tourism, to building a more resilient and robust economy.”
“Think about spending your tourist dollars in such a way that you can become a steward of the natural environment, and not just contribute to its exploitation. Go on a service vacation to plant trees,” said Pawlowski. “Belize is a beautiful place to visit and they have these incredible coral reefs, but because of global warming and the impacts of tourism, the whole reef system is under threat,” he said. “Now there are tourism operators who are inviting tourists to come help with coral nurseries and replant coral that can be resistant to climate change.”
In the end, perhaps it’s not the worst thing to encounter the disruptions caused by climate change when we travel. “Maybe it’s a sign that we need to cut our emissions,” said Pawlowski. “It can be a galvanizing reminder that we need more widespread climate action.”