Heating Up

Today, more than ever, concerns about the realities of global warming had spotlighted the need of change inside the United States’ already struggling civil aviation industry.

As the new Obama administration tries to muscle the US aviation industry to take harder steps in an attempt to steam the runaway effects of climate changes, look for state and regional officials to push hard for a deep examination of the role played by aviation plays in the overall environmental situation.

While cars, factories and power generating plants are the indisputable leaders in the pollution race, it now appears that aviation is moving up the ladder.

In California, where a Republican governor has bolted the party’s line on climate changes, civil aviation officials are currently compiling data on how much pollution airports and aircraft generate.

Early last year, the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California at Davis, showed an aerial image of what one early victim of rising San Francisco Bay water might look. It was of a submerge Oakland International airport. A frightening image still resonating in the minds of those who saw it.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is a public health organization that oversees air quality in nine counties surrounding the Bay, including four large airports: the San Francisco International, the mentioned Oakland facility, the San Jose International and the US Air Force’s Travis Air Force base. The agency reported last fall that aircraft’s share of the pollution index is increasing in comparison to more traditional platforms such as cars, factories and power plants.

The main concern about aviation air pollution comes in the form of unburned hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. New issues, primarily the degradation of Earth’s radiance balance, are now joining the ever increasing list of environmental concerns.
For more than two decades, concerns about the loss of Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer have been driving regulatory provisions. Now particulate matter is gaining more attention because of the general public’s concerns about greenhouse gases.
Estimates of how much aviation contributes to global pollution vary depending of its definition. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) placed aircraft related pollution at around 3.4% of the total radiation ‘forcing’, a figure of climate change, excluding its effects on cirrus clouds. ICAO expects that figure to increase twofold over the next twenty years.

In an interview with Michael Mecham back in 2007, atmospheric scientist, Donald Wuebbles said that “the climate change impact is potentially the most serious long-term problem facing the aviation industry”.
Five years ago, most regulatory constraints were focus on NOx emissions, now carbon is getting a much visible profile because of the greenhouse effect.

The equalizer? Fuel prices! The continuing high price of aviation fuel has placed a greater emphasis in developing fuel-saving engines. That alone will reduce aviation’s carbon footprint.

The US military is also getting into the act. The Pentagon wants cleaner burning fuels, but its experiments with Fischer-Tropsch type of synthetic fuel mixtures has been prompted because of the country’s overly dependency on foreign sources rather than innovating push.

The Defense Department overall fuel consumption is almost the same of what the largest US carriers burn. As with the civilian industry, the Air Force has a targeted goal of cutting back emissions. If the Pentagon can arrive at their propose standard of producing 100 million gallons of a 50/50 synthetic-petroleum mix by early 2010, it can cut up to 15 million pounds of carbon particles and 1.2 billion pounds of CO2.

While such industry and military initiatives proceed, the biggest issue for the government is how to accurately measure aviation pollution. For this, the Transportation Department has been working since the early 2000s in developing a computer program that can model emissions dispersals in the vicinity of airports. Its set to become operational in the summer of 2010.

– Raul Colon

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