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:

13 responses to “Plane crashes and climate change”

    • Ha, ha, maybe I was being a tough on that video. It wasn’t bad, I think I just felt that it was biased. I did agree with most of it though and it did make me aware of this paper which I hadn’t previously seen.

      • Some of the criticism (yours and others) was entirely valid. I think I’m going through a phase of thinking that maybe we need to fight fire with fire. However, it’s quite likely that doing so will be counter-productive and that we should be encouraging the media to be straightforward and honest and to rely on the evidence, rather than on overly dramatic rhetoric.

      • I think it’s just a case of different things appealing to different people. The video appealed to you and many others so it still serves a purpose. This is why it’s a shame that there are so few climate scientists speaking out about it because James Hansen’s explanation will not appeal to everyone.

  1. There are cases (admittedly only a handful) where a jetliner that runs out of fuel manages to land without injury to the occupants. Perhaps the best-known is the Gimli Glider,

    “If a Boeing 767 runs out of fuel at 41,000 feet what do you have? Answer: A 132 ton glider with a sink rate of over 2000 feet-per-minute and marginally enough hydraulic pressure to control the ailerons, elevator, and rudder…”

    It landed safely on an abandoned airstrip which was being used for drag racing, but the racers may not have expected that a B767 would join in.

    The Earth’s atmosphere running out of sufficient infra-red re-radiation capacity to maintain a stable climate is more like the Gimli Glider than Avianca flight 52 – although I admit that we may not get political, economic and commercial leaders in time to stop great difficulty.

    However a recent report from Australian QUANGO, the Australian Energy Market Operator, indicates that help may come from a perhaps unexpected source: the energy industry:

    ‘Switching Australia to 100 per cent renewable power within decades could end up costing the same as continuing to use fossil fuels, a federal government study suggests.

    ‘Modelling by the Australian Energy Market Operator shows sourcing 100 per cent of power from solar, wind and other clean sources would be technically viable by 2030, albeit with the cost ranging from $219 billion to $252 billion. But a “community summary” quietly published this month has rekindled debate by saying a massive renewable expansion would be no more expensive than expanding conventional energy.

    ‘ “We’re exposed to rising carbon prices, we’re exposed to rising gas prices,” said Jenny Riesz, a research associate at the Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets at the University of NSW. “What this [summary] is saying that for around the same price, you can build 100 per cent renewable energy and completely protect yourselves from all of those risks.” ‘

    This winter in Sydney is the warmest on record. Florists are complaining that many plants feel that it’s almost summer, and undertakers are complaining that business is bad because so few people are dropping dead.

    Attributing this directly to climate change is drawing a long bow, but it does serve to remind people about the topic.

    • What an amazing story the Gimli Glider is! Thanks for that. You’re an absolute wealth of knowledge MikeM.

      Are you enjoying the warmest winter on record?

      • Certainly am, although if next summer is this much hotter than average I will not be happy. Considering that it’s still officially winter, nasturtiums are going crazy,, This magnolia tree has been flowering for a while, now leaves are breaking out. (The frangipani in the background is not so sure that it is spring). The other weekend I saw someone swimming in her underwear in the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park – an unusual thing to do, but it was certainly warm enough for that, – no, I was not tempted to join her.

      • It was also very mild in Auckland before we left and I have since read that this is shaping up to be the warmest winter on record. I didn’t like it very much because I like to experience the different seasons.

  2. What a coincedence because I am also facsinated with airplane crashes, too, including crime cases that were never solved. Speaking of Colombian flight, I love Colombia. It’s so vegan-friendly 😉

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