Climate Change Could Increase Flight Turbulence, Study Says

Climate change is already blamed for plenty of the things going wrong in the world. Studies have found increasing temperatures and greenhouse gasses pollution causes rising sea levels, severe droughts, and all kinds of extreme weather disasters. However, according to a recent British research, climate change could also make your future flights a lot more unpleasant. Unfortunately, we will soon hear the flight turbulence warning much more often.

A team of scientists in the UK used computer models to simulate a scenario expected to occur later this century. They simulated a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide from 280 parts per million (the pre-industrial levels) to 560 ppm. The current figure stands at around 400 ppm, and it’s already affecting clear air turbulence.

According to their results, we should expect flying to get a lot bumpier. The discovery is bound to trouble the airline industry, which experiences annually around 800 “turbulence encounters.” Dozens of passengers get away with minor injuries annually, according to FAA statistics. Statistics show 2009 was the year with the highest number of turbulence injuries over the past 15 years. Severe turbulence injured 80 passengers and 26 crew members.

In 2015, the most recent year covered by statistics, 21 turbulence injuries occurred. However, you shouldn’t worry, because airlines are already working on creating on-board systems to warn pilots and stabilize airplanes.

What Is Clear-Air Turbulence?

Clear-air turbulence, or CAT, is the most common kind of turbulence. If you’ve ever traveled by plane, you most likely experienced it. It usually occurs when the margin of a jet stream comes in contact with slower moving air, and pilots cannot do very much to avoid it. CAT is a tricky little thing. Almost impossible to forecast and invisible to the naked eye, clear-air turbulence even stays off radars.

CAT is a tricky little thing. Almost impossible to forecast and invisible to the naked eye, clear-air turbulence even stays off radars. These disturbances usually hit the aircraft above 30,000 feet. Jet streams—two in each hemisphere—are narrow tunnels of air circling the planet from west to east. They also drift from north to south, directed by the outlines of cold polar air and hot tropical air. Nowadays, climate change causes a significant acceleration.

However, even though CAT is responsible for most injuries in air passengers, the dangers are rarely serious. In fact, pilot training teaches them to handle all sorts of turbulence, so don’t swear off flying. While flight turbulence can be extremely uncomfortable—especially for anxious passengers—they are not risky.

Violent turbulence

Increasing Flight Turbulence across All Categories

Just like hurricanes and earthquakes, turbulence is divided in several categories. The study, published originally in Advances in Atmospheric Science, continues the work of Paul Williams, a meteorologist at the Reading University. Released in 2013, his paper discovered a connection between climate change and rough flights. However, Williams’ results could not differentiate the turbulence that endangered flight attendants and the mild inconveniences that spill your drink.

While the 2013 paper showed the future definitely features more turbulence as a whole, it failed to dig down into the details. For the first time, the new study took a separate look at each strength category. This allowed the researchers to make individual predictions for the future of light turbulence and severe turbulence. While the former is perfectly safe but causes anxiousness in some fliers, the latter can throw people around in the cabin and cause major injuries.

Williams’ most recent work showed a 59 percent increase in light turbulence, and 75 percent increase in light-to-moderate turbulence. In other words, air passengers should expect more spilled drinks and sudden warnings to buckle their seatbelts. However, the most unsettling finding showed that severe turbulence is also going up. Sudden shocks that can toss people around are expected to spike by 149 percent.

“For most passengers, light turbulence is nothing more than an annoying inconvenience that reduces their comfort levels,” Williams said. “[But] even the most seasoned frequent fliers may be alarmed at the prospect of a 149% increase in severe turbulence, which frequently hospitalizes air travelers and flight attendants around the world.”

Flight turbulence hasn’t been the cause of a plane crash since the 1960s. However, the new study emphasized that severe turbulence can cause significant wear and tear on aircraft. To prevent any potential disasters, this effect should be kept under close monitoring.

Technology to the Rescue

Of course, it’s comforting to know pilots can handle most turbulence events. Thanks to air traffic control and other pilots flying on the same path, they are constantly in-the-know with real-time updates of turbulent air. But there’s another thing pilots can use to prevent threatening turbulence: technology.

Some years ago, French company Thales collaborated with European aviation companies to develop an on-board LIDAR equipment. It could detect CAT up to 18 miles ahead but it had too many downsides. Not only did it weigh 440 pounds, but it wasn’t terribly accurate and it cost a fortune. Paul Vrancken of the German Aerospace Agency said the high price was only one of the reasons why the aeronautics industry didn’t invest in it.

However, some of the leading players in aviation are ready to tackle this problem. For instance, the new Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner features nosecone sensors that locate turbulence ahead. In addition, it sends signals to computers regulating the control surfaces to absorb the effects of turbulence before it gets a chance to distress the passengers.

Wrap Up

Williams’ top priority for the near future is to explore alternative flight routes around the world. Another approach of the problem involves investigating the altitude and seasonal dependence of the changes. The takeaway of the study is that the increases in flight turbulence do not mean we’ll see more injuries. Other factors affect the comfort of an airplane ride, too. Forecasting allows pilots to avoid severe turbulence and modern planes are better at withstanding turbulence.

Pilot training and technology advancement may lessen the impacts of turbulent flights, but in the meantime, it may be a good idea to buckle up. Yes, even when the seat belt light is off – it’s always better safe than sorry!

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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