Plane crashes and climate change

I am quite fascinated by aeroplane crashes. It’s just another of my morbid obsessions. One crash in particular, stands in my mind above all others. It’s the 1990 crash of Colombian flight 52 into the village of Cove Neck, New York killing 73 of the 158 people on board.

What is so intriguing about this crash is that it was caused by fuel exhaustion. The plane simply ran out of fuel, causing the engines to flameout, electrical systems to lose power and finally the plane to crash into the ground. The pilots knew they were low on fuel and they knew the situation was dire before the crash, so why didn’t they land the plane?

Well, it turns out they were trying to land but the plane had been in a holding queue for Kennedy International Airport for 73 minutes during which time they were using up their fuel reserves. They did not communicate their fuel situation to air traffic control until after they had been waiting to land for over an hour. Then the wording they used to convey the urgency of the situation was, “I think we need priority.”

A subsequent investigation into the crash put much of the blame in the failure of the pilots to communicate their fuel emergency with air traffic control.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the
probable cause of this accident was the failure of the flightcrew to
adequately manage the airplane’s fuel load, and their failure to communicate an emergency fuel situation to air traffic control before fuel exhaustion occurred.

The reason I’m writing about this now is that I can see a lesson here for climate scientists. There has been so much discussion recently about whether climate scientists should make public their opinions about what, if anything, is to be done to solve the climate crisis. Some people think climate scientists should remain mute and stick to the science. But not unlike air traffic controllers, the rest of us have no idea how much fuel there is left and we need the pilots, or in this case scientists, to communicate clearly and with urgency if urgency is required. If the word “emergency” is needed, then they need to say so. Otherwise we’re left with the version of the story that Rupert Murdoch would like us to read which without doubt will have no mention of any emergency.

Some climate scientists – like James Hansen – do try to communicate the urgency of the situation but he is almost a lone wolf. A paper published earlier this year found that on the whole, scientists tend to be rather conservative in their estimates of the dangers of climate change. It’s called “Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama?“.  The authors conclude that rather than being alarmist, climate scientists and IPCC assessments in particular have actually under-predicted key aspects of global warming such as the speed of Arctic sea-ice loss, the increase in rainfall intensity, surface ocean heat uptake and the pace of rise in sea level and greenhouse gas emissions.

So if the scientists are currently downplaying the threat of climate change, then are we at risk of running out of fuel and crashing just like Avianca flight 52?

I’ve posted this video of James Hansen before, but it’s very good and informative and is of a climate scientist trying to get the message across:

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