Researchers: Climate change will impact aviation

Earlier this summer, dozens of flights were grounded at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport. The skies were perfectly clear but it was so hot. Planes literally could not take off in the 118-degree heat. Researchers from Columbia University say the scenario could become more common all over the world.

"At the hottest hours of the day, a fully loaded airplane in the future 10 to 25 percent of the time won't be able to take off at that full weight," said Radley Horton, a climatologist at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

He worked on a study on the topic that was published in the journal Climate Change. The study predicts that rising temperatures and more frequent heat waves will mean more airplanes are forced to reduce weight, likely by removing passengers, to be able to take off.

"In an increasingly globally connected world, if one flight is delayed, a few people are removed, that can affect the broader economy," Horton said.

Warmer air lowers the air's density, making it harder for a plane's engine to generate lift, former commercial pilot J.P. Tristani said.

"Basically speaking, all pilots fear hot days and high altitudes because that one simple fact -- density of the air -- affects engine performance," he said.

Planes have to go faster to take off in high temperatures, but can't do that in airports with short runways, like LaGuardia.

"Runways aren't long enough for planes to get enough speed and therefore enough lift to get off the ground," Horton said.

Is this something that we'll see in our lifetime?

"We're already seeing it to some extent and over the course of the next 40, 50 years as greenhouse gas concentrations go up in the atmosphere due to human activities, some cities could see two, three times as many heatwaves or more than they've had in the past, Horton said, "meaning more of these weight-restriction days."

Advances in technology and plane engine design could help offset the problem, but Horton said it is unlikely to stave it off entirely, especially because aviation itself is a major emitter of greenhouse gases.

"Aviation is responsible for something like 3 or 4 percent of the human warming that we see every year," he said.

The researchers said they hope the next steps will be for aviation experts to get involved to try to address the challenges of a warming climate and to come up for ways to cut their own harmful emissions.