July 21, 2024

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How to Navigate the Unpredictability of Travel in the Age of Climate Change

9 min read

Kia Karjalainen and her sister were vacationing in Greece when things took an unexpected turn. “We were in our hotel room, and I suddenly said to my sister, ‘It really, really smells of smoke. Is something burning?’”

It was mid-July on the island of Rhodes, and wildfire smoke was heading in their direction. Planes flew over their hotel pool, carrying water to the fires. Everything, including their clothes, was covered in a fine layer of ash. Ms. Karjalainen, a London-based events coordinator, tried to move up their flights home, but everything was booked.

“You don’t want to put yourself in danger or other people, ” said Ms. Karjalainen, 24. “You have to think of the locals and how it vastly impacts them.” The entire experience, she said, was “eye-opening.”

Ms. Karjalainen was hardly the only traveler to have her eyes opened during the summer of 2023, when the effects of climate change — heat waves, floods, wildfires, extreme storms — seemed to crop up in every corner of the world.

July turned out to be the planet’s hottest month on record, while the period from June to August was the Northern Hemisphere’s hottest-ever summer.

As temperatures soared, parts of Western Europe slogged through long-running drought conditions, while places from Vermont to Brazil to the Himalayas were inundated with floods or landslides. And then there were the wildfires in Maui, Texas and Canada, as well as in France, Portugal, the Canary Islands — and Greece.

It was a summer of extremes, and a summer of lessons for the travelers and locals who encountered them. Looking ahead, here are some lessons from the climate change upheavals of the past few months. One thing is clear: Unpredictability is the new normal.

The world’s cities were on the front lines this summer, and many are trying to get out in front of the weather. In Athens, where temperatures spiked to 104 degrees in July, authorities closed the Acropolis in the middle of the day; they also installed shades to offer protection from the sun. In August, authorities at the Colosseum in Rome began offering early-morning tickets, allowing visitors accompanied by an official tour guide to enter as early as 7:30 a.m. And in Paris, Berlin and Washington, D.C., some pools and parks were kept open until as late as midnight during heat waves.

The organizers of next summer’s Olympic Games in Paris are planning ahead to beat the heat. The nearly 40-year-old Bercy Arena, site of the gymnastics competitions, is getting air conditioning — which is relatively uncommon in Paris and many other European cities — while the glass-roofed Grand Palais will be equipped with temporary air conditioning, as well as a huge shade. At outdoor sites, visitors can expect to find shelters, beverage stations and misting zones.

Miami, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Athens and Freetown, Sierra Leone, are among the cities that have recently installed “chief heat officers” to create public warning systems, expand green spaces and build “cooling centers,” among other measures. Washington, D.C., has launched Keep Cool DC, which aims to plant trees, invest in parks and promote heat-sensitive building design. In Spain, Seville may soon name and categorize heat waves so that people can prepare as they would for hurricanes.

“If heat waves are categorized by their health impact level and the most hazardous ones are named, citizens can effectively protect themselves,” said Angie Moreno, Seville’s councilor for tourism.

Gabby Beckford, a travel content creator who visited Seville in June, was struck by how well the infrastructure was adapted to heat. The city was designed “to work with the sun’s daily path and to keep as much shade in the city as possible,” she said, noting the narrow alleyways and shaded roads and paths.

Spaniards are known for arranging their days around heat, Ms. Beckford said. “Outsiders might have looked at the siesta culture as lackadaisical,” she said, but the Spaniards “truly use it as a means of survival.”

In Spain and beyond, visitors are also starting to avoid sightseeing during the hottest hours. Isabella Calidonna, an art historian and tour guide in Rome, was surprised to discover during a recent early-morning tour that the Trevi Fountain was already crowded — at 6:10 a.m. “People are starting to change the timing of their visits. They’re leaving for the day earlier,” Dr. Calidonna said.

Along with planning activities for cooler times of the day, avoiding peak summer travel is another timing shift that’s coming. Some tour companies are already emphasizing cooler months.

Sebastian Ebel, the chief executive of TUI, said the company plans to extend its travel season into the spring and fall. “We will go into Greece to middle of November, and I actually asked my colleagues, maybe we should open it until the end of the year, until or after Christmas,” Mr. Ebel said.

In the two and a half years since she started Cherish Tours, her tour company for women, Megan Grant has yet to run a group trip that departs in the hot, crowded, expensive months of July or August. A recent tour in September went to the cool Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic.

Avoiding summer is a principle she applies to her personal travels as well. She’s getting married in Italy next year: in April.

It wasn’t an easy summer for nervous fliers. In August, 11 people were taken to the hospital after a Delta Air Lines flight from Milan to Atlanta encountered severe turbulence. In July, an Allegiant Airlines flight from Asheville, N.C., to St. Petersburg, Fla., sent four people to the hospital. And in late June, turbulence on a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Honolulu to Sydney sent several unbelted passengers flying into the air.

Such incidents aren’t new, but researchers have found that clear air turbulence — rough air that comes on suddenly in cloudless skies — has increased significantly at aircraft-cruising altitudes over the past four decades. Other researchers predict that climate change will further exacerbate the phenomenon, as well as incidents of turbulence above mountain ranges and around clouds.

“Clear air turbulence will inevitably increase as the climate continues to warm,” said Yann Cabaret, the chief executive of SITA, an air transport communications and information technology company. He added that climate change will also bring major disruptions to air travel in the form of more frequent storms, floods and other events. “Delays and disruptions caused by weather conditions account for 75 percent of air traffic delays,” he said.

Other issues include overheated tarmacs and the strain that high temperatures put on aircraft. Planes’ wings achieve less lift in warmer temperatures, which means they require longer runways for takeoff, while the heat also hinders the performance of jet engines. In a few cases, high temperatures have forced airlines to bump passengers or reduce fuel load to make planes light enough to take off. In other cases, temperatures have exceeded the maximum at which aircraft are allowed to operate, forcing cancellations.

On a visit to Montana in August, Joe Zocchi, a retired attorney in San Antonio, wasn’t able to fish in the Big Hole River as much as he had hoped. “Our fishing was curtailed,” he said, by restrictions “that prohibited fishing in the afternoon once the water temperature reached 68 degrees.” Such restrictions kick in when waters get warm enough to stress cold-water fish.

Rivers in Europe are also feeling the effects of climate change. Tour operators have canceled cruises on the Rhine, the Danube and the Elbe because of low water levels.

And the ocean isn’t behaving as expected either. Sven-Olof Lindblad, the founder and chief executive of the luxury cruise company Lindblad Expeditions, said that climate shifts have made storms harder to anticipate, as historic data have become a less reliable indicator of where and when rough weather will occur. “There is more unpredictability in the system,” Mr. Lindblad said, adding that the “possibility of disruption” is higher now than in the last 50 years.

Cooler areas, including northern Europe, could see a significant rise as travelers look to avoid encounters with intense heat.

Liisa Kokkarinen, the head of sustainable development at Visit Finland, said the country had seen an uptick in visitors, especially from Asia and elsewhere in Europe.

“Something that was in the past considered ‘too cold to visit’ is maybe no longer too cold to visit,” said Ms. Kokkarinen, who lives in Lapland, along the Arctic Circle. Typically, the high season there is the winter, with travelers coming for the snowy landscapes and Northern Lights. But now more visitors are enjoying the mild summers — something the government tourism agency is working to support.

“In Finland, people return to school and work in August, so there is space for international visitors,” she said. “We don’t see the pressure, because that’s actually our low season.”

But even in the lower latitudes, breezy coastal areas could also see more summer visitors. This summer on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where visitation usually peaks in winter and spring, the Pink Palm Hotel welcomed a tide of visitors from Texas fleeing the scorching temperatures back home.

“Who knew the heat domes of the U.S. South would create such a need to travel for cooler climates, including the Caribbean, during the summer?” said Brent Pelton, the founder of American Beech Hospitality, the parent company of the hotel.

Storms, heat waves and wildfires are anything but predictable, and travelers are increasingly building in ways to change their plans on the fly.

Jared Brenner, an American who recently retired to Lisbon, said he will often pay more for refundable or flexible flight tickets, or look for flights with smaller change or cancellation fees.

Mr. Brenner and his wife have also begun signing up for organized trips, which offer an extra layer of support in the event of the unexpected. “For years, we booked things ourselves, but from now on we’ll think about group trips,” Mr. Brenner said.

On the accommodation front, travelers should check the refund and cancellation policies before booking, as policies vary. Travel insurance can offer some protection, but those who are stuck paying for a nonrefundable room can try to sell it on a site like SpareFare, or Eluxit, which allows travelers to resell prepaid trips.

People are also thinking more about how they will manage if things go wrong, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, noting that the idea of planning an escape route cropped up in focus groups he recently conducted among American travelers. “They said, ‘Well, we’re keenly aware that things can and do go wrong,’” Mr. Harteveldt recalled. Some are even reserving backup hotel rooms or rental cars.

On a June trip to the Colorado Rockies, Sasha Lezhnev of Virginia was driving to meet his wife and son when he encountered what looked like a mini-tornado.

“The dust devil was running across the road and there was nothing I could do. You just hope your car doesn’t spin around,” Mr. Leshnev said, adding that they also endured a series of tornado watches during the trip.

Mr. Lezhnev, the founder of the travel website Off The Beaten Travel, said that the experience and others like it, including a close brush with a summer wildfire in Montana, have led him to consider places like Maine, Scotland, Finland and Norway, which are known for their relatively cool, calm climates.

But even northern Europe isn’t immune to upheaval. Finland and Norway saw heavy rains this summer.

“We were having to change itineraries in the spur of the moment,” said Torunn Tronsvang, the founder of the travel operator Up Norway. “The roads were flooded and we had landslides and the railway was shut down. One railway bridge collapsed,” she said.

But the company managed, even as they welcomed a record number of guests this summer. “We learned so much from the pandemic,” Ms. Tronsvang said.

The importance of being prepared is something that travelers are also taking to heart.

Travelers “are keenly aware that things are different now,” said Mr. Harteveldt, the travel analyst. “And you cannot just plan a trip without doing some research and having some level of awareness about your destination and potential risks.”

Elaine Glusac contributed reporting.

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2023.

Paige McClanahan

2023-09-28 09:01:40

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