Dirty Aviation’s Melting the Arctic: Researchers Find a Mind-Blowingly Cheap Solution

Simply rerouting plane flights around the Arctic will delay sea ice melt and prevent up to 2 percent of global warming, say researchers

Arctic sea ice is at an all-time recorded low in 2012, and dirty aviation plays a part. But new research shows that simply rerouting plane flights around the Arctic will delay Arctic sea ice melt, prevent 1.75 to 2 percent of global warming, and have a 50-fold return on investment in the US alone. Will governments and airlines listen?

photoname Image by NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization StudioSatellite data reveal how the new record low Arctic sea ice extent, from Sept. 16, 2012, compares to
the average minimum extent over the past 30 years (in yellow).

Data from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center shows that the ice around the North Pole is at the smallest ever seen since we began to measure it — 18 percent lower than the previous historical low. This, in turn, causes the earth to absorb more sunlight and get even hotter.

New research from Stanford atmospheric scientist Marc Jacobson and others shows that “the most abundant direct source of black carbon and other climate-relevant pollutants over the Arctic is cross-polar flights by international aviation” — but rerouting flights around the Arctic could help solve the problem:

“To study this issue, a model…was used…that treated cross-polar flights and flights rerouted around the Arctic Circle…[M]ost of the associated black carbon and other emissions were removed faster because they were now over latitudes of greater precipitation and lesser stability.…The Arctic reduction in pollutants, particularly of black carbon, decreased Arctic and global temperature and increased Arctic sea ice over 22 years.”

So if you were to reroute planes around the Arctic: “Due mostly to Arctic cooling, global surface temperatures decreased by…1.75–2 % of net global warming (0.7–0.8 K) to date.”

Yes, you read that right: this one simple change could reverse 2 percent of global warming over the course of 22 years. But wouldn’t it cost money to make the change? Researchers looked at that:

“Rerouting may increase worldwide fuel plus operational costs by only ~$99 million/yr, 47–55 times less than an estimated 2025 US alone cost savings due to the global warming reduction from rerouting.”

How would the US save $50 for every $1 invested in rerouting planes? Researchers look at the cost of dealing with global warming (“severe-storm damage, real estate loss, energy-sector costs, and water costs”). If the whole world spends about $99 million/year to avoid flying over the Arctic, then by 2025, Americans alone would be saving $4.7–5.4 billion every year from expected global warming damage. The savings would be substantially higher if you include every other country in the world.

We know that the aviation industry is responsible for 4.9 percent of the human causes of climate change, but addressing that problem is huge and thorny. But this is relatively simple: it’s a change that would affect only a small proportion of flights globally, and offers a tremendous bang for the buck.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Donate
Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The Latest

4 Major Environmental Treaties the US Never Ratified — But Should

Most of the world’s countries support these global agreements on conservation and pollution, but the United States is noticeably absent.

Tara Lohan

The Journey to Save a Turtle

Dan Thompson has dedicated 25 years to rescuing the Blanding’s turtle from the edge of extinction.

Jennifer Taylor

Turning Things Around on a Warming Planet

Netflix’s newest documentary featuring Britain’s most famous natural history filmmaker explores the causes of and solutions to the climate crisis.

Ed Rampell

A Woman Named Eunice Foote Documented Physics of Climate Change in 1800s

A rare female scientist in her time, Foote explicitly warned about the basic science. Why haven’t we listened more closely?

Sylvia G. Dee

Drought and Fire Are Pushing Australia’s Platypus to the Brink

Ecologists are racing to gather data on the curious monotremes as climate threat looms large.

John Pickrell

Salmon Nearly Boiled Alive in Pacific Northwest Heatwave Captured on Video

A conservation group recorded the video in the Columbia River on a day when water temperatures breached 70F.

Hallie Golden The Guardian