Travel and the Climate Crisis: How it affects us and what we can do about it

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    Climate change and global warming are already showing profound and far-reaching effects on our planet. One of them is an increase in the frequency and severity of climate-related extreme weather events.

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    Tourism is responsible for approximately 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions. What is more, this figure is expected to double by 2050, in line with scientists' predictions of ecological disasters as global temperatures rise to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. Concerningly, if we fail to curb our emissions, the warming trend will accelerate, leading to more catastrophic weather events.

    This has considerable consequences on not just our ability to travel and our infrastructure. The transportation infrastructure in many countries, which was primarily designed for the climate of the mid-20th-century, is becoming increasingly unsafe and unreliable due to rising temperatures and more extreme weather events.

    At the same time, some of the world's most renowned and picturesque vacation spots are under threat, with some facing possible extinction. Popular tourist destinations are at risk of becoming intolerable due to heatwaves, forest fires, and flooding. Warming oceans have already damaged coral reefs. On the other end of the scale, shorter winters and extreme weather events are negatively impacting ski seasons and local infrastructure like transportation and water supply systems.

    Especially cities in the Global South are on the front line of climate change challenges, with irreversible effects from melting glaciers and thawing permafrost, severe water scarcity affecting half of the world's population, and rising heat-related deaths.

    Socially and economically marginalized urban communities will be the hardest hit. With urban populations projected to grow by 2.5 billion people by 2050, mainly in Asia and Africa, the proportion of people in climate-exposed urban areas will rise significantly. Informal, sprawling urban development in the Global South may heighten vulnerability to coastal flooding events, affecting an estimated 1 billion people by 2050.

    Impact on Infrastructure

    Infrastructure across the board is already being affected by the climate crisis and resulting extreme weather events. As the severity of the situation increases, travel by air, land and sea will be even further affected.

    In terms of air travel, climate change presents several challenges. The higher temperatures make takeoffs more difficult due to reduced air density, potentially leading to grounded flights if there are no infrastructure improvements made. Flights are also encountering increased turbulence due to changing wind patterns, including clear-air turbulence that is hard to predict. Coastal airports are at risk from rising sea levels and storms. On the other end of the scale, extreme cold snaps can disrupt flights by affecting aircraft materials and equipment. Such airport disruptions further cause network-wide delays, especially at hub airports.

    Railways are not immune either. Railway tracks can misalign or buckle in extreme temperatures, costing billions in delays. Electric trains face wire damage from expanding in high heat or sagging in freezing conditions.

    Roads in Europe are at risk of significant damage due to heat waves, with a 2017 study projecting that 92 percent of the total damage could be attributed to rising temperatures. Additionally, higher temperatures can lead to bridge expansion. This is what happened to the Hammersmith Bridge in London during the 2022 European heat wave.

    At sea, extreme weather events, like hurricanes and storms, are increasing the risks and disruptions associated with cruising. Rising sea levels threaten coastal ports' accessibility for cruise ships, with potential damage to beaches and low-lying cruise destinations such as Key West, Fiji, Palau, Seychelles, and the Maldives. Additionally, coastal tourism, a major sector in the industry, faces threats from ocean acidification, with half of the world's coral reefs already lost or damaged.

    Extreme Weather Events and Travel Disruptions

    The more frequent and severe hurricanes, storms, floods, and wildfires brought on by the climate crisis are leaving their mark on communities worldwide. Beyond the immediate devastation and human toll, these events are wreaking havoc on travel plans in a number of different ways.

    For travelers, the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events mean that meticulously planned vacations and business trips can be thrown into chaos with little warning. It's an unfortunate reality that many travelers are now facing.

    One of the most immediate and visible effects of extreme weather on travel is the disruption of air travel. Hurricanes and storms can ground planes, leading to countless flight cancellations and delays. Passengers find themselves stranded at airports, forced to rebook flights, rearrange itineraries, and grapple with uncertainty. The economic cost of these disruptions runs into the billions each year, with airlines and passengers bearing the brunt of the financial burden.

    Damage to Infrastructure

    Extreme weather events also inflict damage on transportation infrastructure, compounding travel problems. Floods can submerge roadways, making them impassable. Wildfires may close highways, and hurricanes can damage ports and coastal infrastructure critical for cruise ships and cargo traffic. Repairing and fortifying these vital links in the travel chain takes time, leaving travelers with limited options and potential long-term impacts on regional economies.

    Tourism-Dependent Regions are Particularly Vulnerable

    Tourism-dependent regions, which rely heavily on a steady influx of visitors, find themselves in a precarious position. When hurricanes, floods, or wildfires strike, they not only disrupt travel plans but also threaten the livelihoods of those who depend on tourism. The Caribbean, for example, is a prime destination susceptible to hurricane damage, which can devastate local economies.

    Latest Examples of Climate-Induced Disasters

    The rising temperatures have drastically increased the risk of wildfires in forests and jungles, as evidenced by two some incidents in the summer of 2023.

    A team of scientists discovered that human-caused climate change played an "overwhelming" role in recent heatwaves in Europe, the US, and China. July 2023 was predicted to be the hottest month globally since record-keeping began, following a record-breaking June. The UN also announced that the earth's weather systems had entered a natural climate phase called El Niño, further contributing to rising global temperatures.

    The study, conducted by the World Weather Attribution initiative, found that these heatwaves would have been "virtually impossible" without climate change, and their increasing frequency is expected to occur every two to five years with a 2°C global temperature rise. Regardless of their causes, climate change creates conditions for more destructive wildfires, according to the UN.

    As a result, the extreme heat and weather events of summer 2023 in southern Europe are causing internal displacement, disrupting tourism and the local economy, and contributing to the global climate migration crisis.

    In the past decade, almost 22 million people have been displaced every year due to weather-related events. Projections estimate the world will see 1.2 billion climate migrants by 2050, primarily from countries ill-equipped to handle climate impacts.

    Spain and Italy have faced extreme heatwaves this year, with temperatures well above normal summer levels. But the worst impact has been on Greece, where wildfires have led to evacuations of tourists from islands like Rhodes and Corfu, turning the airport into an improvised campsite. With the country relying on tourism for nearly a quarter of its GDP, the wildfires will have much more far-reaching consequences than the immediate aftermath of the disaster, as tourists stay away.

    The wildfires prompted massive evacuations of residents and tourists. Climate change significantly contributed to the heightened risk of wildfires, due to more frequent heatwaves and droughts that make the environment much more prone to fire. In the Mediterranean, the fire weather index shows a concerning increase since the late 20th century, subjecting the region to 29 extra days of extreme fire weather annually.

    While climate change does not start the fires itself, it amplifies conditions conducive to causing fires. A recent heatwave, 50 times less likely in pre-industrial times, fueled Greece's fire risk and it is only set to rise in the future unless emissions are reduced. The UN Environment Programme predicts a surge in extreme wildfires of up to 14% by 2030 and 50% by 2100 due to global climate change.

    On the other side of the world, in Hawaii, the story looks no different. Wildfires, particularly on Maui and the Big Island, caused significant destruction in the summer of 2023, resulting in over 100 casualties and the evacuation of thousands of residents and tourists. The wildfire in Lahaina was one of the deadliest in the US in over a century.

    Hawaii has been experiencing severe drought conditions, with 14% of the state facing severe or moderate drought and 80% classified as abnormally dry. Climate change, combined with factors like high winds from Hurricane Dora, warm temperatures, and low humidity, came together in a dangerous cocktail that increased the risk of wildfires.

    The Maui wildfires were further exacerbated by uninsulated, bare metal power lines sparking due to high winds and falling power poles. Hawaiian Electric Co had left miles of power lines exposed to the weather and vegetation, despite other utilities in wildfire- and hurricane-prone areas opting to cover or bury their lines. Additionally, many of Hawaiian Electric's 60,000 wooden power poles did not meet modern standards and were near the end of their projected lifespan. These vulnerabilities, coupled with the lack of insulated wires, contributed to the rapid spread of flames.

    The fact is that power companies also need to prepare for climate change-related threats like prolonged droughts and high winds to avoid catastrophic events and financial losses such as the Hawaii wildfires.

    Impact on Tropical and Seaside Destinations

    Now you may be thinking of escaping the heat and the water by heading for the cold mountains. Yet, once again, you may find yourself disappointed. Global warming is also adversely affecting mountain holiday destinations. Milder winters, reduced snowfall, delayed snow arrival, and earlier melting are all resulting in shorter ski seasons. Even high-altitude areas like the Alps are impacted, with some resorts experiencing brown, bare runs and lower ski stations being affected by rainfall.

    The alps have been a haven for skiing enthusiasts, spanning eight countries and boasting some of the globe's most coveted slopes. Yet, as temperatures rise, the significant snowmelt is increasingly shortening the winter sports season. According to Time, in 2017, the season was a staggering 38 days shorter than it was in 1960.

    What's even more disquieting is the prognosis from scientists who predict that, by the close of this century, venturing upward to the 10,000-foot (3,000 meter) mark may be the only way to witness snow on any alpine peaks. In the face of this danger to their source of income, numerous resorts have started to diversify their offerings with spas, horseback riding or tennis all being set up to entice more off-season explorers. However, this does not cancel out the fact that if nothing changes, the off-season will soon become the new normal.

    Aside from tourists not being able to strap on their skis anymore, melting glaciers in glacier ski resorts pose additional risks like landslides and avalanches. In the southern hemisphere, popular destinations like Patagonia are witnessing the gradual disappearance of snow-capped mountains and ice fields, with icebergs breaking off glaciers and vanishing into the ocean.

    Glaciers disappearing is a concern the world over. Canada’s Glacier National Park drew over 3 million visitors in 2019. However, the warming global temperatures pose an existential threat to this ecosystem, which shelters countless types of wildlife and thousands of plant species.

    Recent data from the U.S. Geological Survey and Portland State University, dated May 2017, reveals that climate change has substantially shrunk 39 distinct glaciers within the park since 1966, with the most affected ones diminishing by a staggering 85 percent. This concerning trend shows no signs of slowing down, which will affect the ecosystem in unprecedented ways. Scientists predict that within a few decades, there will be hardly any ice left, and by the end of the century, none at all.

    What can you do?

    From the tropical islands to the snowy mountains, our entire planet’s ecosystem is in severe distress. And the tourism industry contributes to about 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

    Scientists say that to address its emissions problem, the tourism industry must aim for 100% sustainable aviation fuels to power air travel by 2050. The industry can also reduce emissions by increasing the proportion of short-haul trips from 69% in 2019 to 81% by 2050, while travelers would need to limit long-distance flights until at least 2050. Long-haul aviation emissions are currently projected to quadruple by 2050, reaching 41% of total tourism emissions. However, they would really need to be significantly scaled back in order to make a difference to the environment.

    Encouragingly, some companies are taking first steps to reduce their emissions and impact. Tour operators like TUI and Sunweb are offering sleeper train trips as eco-friendly alternatives to short-haul flights in Europe., with the help of Choose, will display carbon emissions data for flights and hotels, allowing travelers to choose lower-emission options. Iberostar Group has unveiled a decarbonization roadmap, aiming for a 2030 net-zero target and sustainability-driven brand appeal.

    And while it is fair to say that there needs to be more large-scale action from major companies, individual travelers can also do their part to reduce their impact and adapt to the uncertainties brought to the tourism industry by the climate crisis.

    What can you do to be prepared for travel in the age of extreme weather?

    • Choose climate-resilient destinations that are less affected by climate change

    • Check the local climate and air quality beforehand

    • Plan indoor activities for extreme weather.

    • Pack sunscreen, hats and appropriate clothing for heat

    • Travel in milder seasons, i.e. shoulder seasons, between peak season and off-season

    • Prepare for delays, have alternative routes ready

    • Buy travel insurance that covers disruptions due to climate change

    • Choose refundable tickets

    • Pick less-frequented destinations

    What can you do to travel more sustainably?

    • Understand and analyze your carbon footprint caused by travel

    • Watch out for greenwashing, where companies claim to be sustainable when they are really not

    • Fly less and take public transportation where possible

    • Pick destinations closer to home

    • Choose local, plant-based meals

    • Engage in slow traveling, i.e. stay in just one location for a longer amount of time

    • Consider service vacations like tree planting or coral reef restoration

    • Support the local economy and opt for sustainable businesses

    While the future may currently look very uncertain, proactive measures can help you weather the storm and continue exploring the world in a sustainable manner and despite the challenges posed by climate change.

    What are your tips for travel in the age of the climate crisis?

    Send us an email at We would love to hear from you!


    Photos by  Kelly Sikkema, Joanne Francis, Issey Bailey,

A profile picture of Ana-Marija Autischer
by Ana-Marija Autischer
The visionary Founder & CEO of Vigilios, where her extensive research into travel safety over the past two years has positioned her at the forefront of the industry. With a keen eye for innovation, she translates complex safety concepts into practical advice for travelers worldwide.

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