To Fight Climate Change, We May Have to Return to the Age of Airships

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No mere flight of fancy, researchers suggest airships are very practical cargo haulers. Clash_Gene/Shutterstock

At this point, staving off climate change is probably not a matter of gentle tweaks and nudges.

We may have to give up cars completely. And our diets are in for a major overhaul.

But one proposal floated by Austrian scientists in a newly published research paper doesn't seem like so much a hardship as a romantic flight of fancy.

Bring back the airships.

Nearly a century after disappearing from our skies, zeppelins — named after the German count who pioneered floating cigar travel — could be poised for a comeback.

At least, if the paper's lead author Julian Hunt of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis has his way,

In the paper, he suggests replacing maritime traffic with high-flying dirigibles. Instead of ships hauling shipments across oceans — and leaving emissions, pollutants and tainted ecosystems in their wake — we could have a sky filled with gently sailing, non-polluting zeppelins.

"We are trying to reduce as much as possible emissions of carbon dioxide because of global warming," Hunt tells NBC News.

An illustration showing the jet stream as it circles the globe.
Jet streams are narrow bands of strong wind flowing westerly in the Earth's upper atmosphere. Destiny VisPro/Shutterstock

Airships would simply ride that powerful air current known as the jet stream around the globe. As such, the shipping lane would run in only one direction — from west to east. But, as the research team calculates, a zeppelin could haul a 20,000 ton payload around the world, dropping off cargo and returning to base in just 16 days.

That's considerably faster, less complicated and, most importantly, less polluting, than any ocean-going vessel.

A stamp printed in Guinea showing the Graf Zeppelin.
A stamp printed in Guinea shows the Graf Zeppelin, a German-built airship that operated commercially from 1928 to 1937. Boris15/

So why aren't we already sailing the friendly skies?

Well, as NBC News points out, there are a few wrinkles.

Like, for instance, a prohibition on U.S. hydrogen airships since 1922. There's good reason for that. Hydrogen, the primary source of buoyancy for airships, is famously flammable. Even as the Austrian research team touts modern, puncture-resistant materials — and the fact that only robots would fly and unload the airships — it's hard to shake off the specter of aerial disaster.

Unlike helium, which floats the iconic Goodyear blimp, hydrogen is easy to source and tremendously volatile.

Which leads us to to the other wrinkle.

An interior view of the Hindenburg.
Airships, like the Hindenburg pictured here, were once hailed as the cruise ships of the sky. Everett Historical/Shutterstock

You may recall a certain catastrophe involving an airship. The downing of the Hindenburg as it tried to land in New Jersey in 1937 leaves an indelible impression. The much-ballyhooed German airship's voyage across the Atlantic ended with 36 people being killed in front of hundreds of horrified eyewitnesses.

An image of the Hindenburg airship burning over New Jersey
The Hindenburg used flammable hydrogen for lift, which incinerated the airship in a massive fireball in 32 seconds. Everett Historical/Shutterstock

For all of the airship's merits, that single image of sky-born terror was enough for the rest of the world to turn its back on what was once considered the future of travel.

As points out, "after more than 30 years of passenger travel on commercial zeppelins — in which tens of thousands of passengers flew over a million miles, on more than 2,000 flights, without a single injury — the era of the passenger airship came to an end in a few fiery minutes."

But perhaps, something much more subtle, but far scarier, may finally exorcise the specter of the Hindenburg. Climate change is upon us. We can't outrun it. We can't sail around it. But perhaps we can fly rather elegantly over it. At least for a little while.