APR 07, 2017 5:17 AM PDT

Airplane turbulence could become stronger due to climate change

Last night I was shaken out of my superficial sleep with a jolt. The meaty hands of the man behind me grasped my chair tightly, shaking my seat even more. I quickly realized that in fact my flight was not landing, rather it was moving roughly in all directions, still in the air. I am a seasoned traveler, but even so, I didn’t resist when the older woman next to me grabbed my hand.

The turbulence only lasted several long minutes, but it was enough to shake up all of the passengers (and I’m sure the flight crew, too, despite their pasted on “reassuring” smiles). But such severe turbulence was perhaps not just a fluke. According to a new study from the University of Reading published in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences (AAS), turbulence strong enough to throw unbuckled passengers and crew around the aircraft cabin could become twice or even three times as frequent because of climate change. This is because climate change is generating stronger wind shears within the jet stream, which can quickly become unstable and cause the type of movement I experienced yesterday.

Using simulations from a supercomputer, researchers determined how wintertime transatlantic clear-air turbulence will change at an altitude of around 12 km (39,000 feet) when there is twice as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The study looked at different turbulence strength levels in order to predicts how they might vary with more impacts from climate change. Their results show that the average amount of light turbulence in the atmosphere will increase by 59%, with light-to-moderate turbulence increasing by 75%, moderate by 94%, moderate-to-severe by 127%, and severe by 149%.

Dr. Paul Williams, the lead researcher, said: "Our new study paints the most detailed picture yet of how aircraft turbulence will respond to climate change. For most passengers, light turbulence is nothing more than an annoying inconvenience that reduces their comfort levels, but for nervous fliers even light turbulence can be distressing. However, even the most seasoned frequent fliers may be alarmed at the prospect of a 149% increase in severe turbulence, which frequently hospitalizes air travellers and flight attendants around the world."

A dramatic visualization of air turbulence. Photo: BRG

He said it’s important to think of alternatives to the flight models we have in place currently. "My top priority for the future is to investigate other flight routes around the world. We also need to investigate the altitude and seasonal dependence of the changes, and to analyze different climate models and warming scenarios to quantify the uncertainties." After the turbulence my flight experienced last night, I would have to agree.

Sources: Environmental News Network, Institute of Atmospheric Physics

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
You May Also Like
MAR 01, 2021
Earth & The Environment
Automating the forecasting of oil and gas reserves
MAR 01, 2021
Automating the forecasting of oil and gas reserves
A study published in the journal Applied Energy describes a series of algorithms developed by Texas A&M researc ...
MAR 16, 2021
Earth & The Environment
Bet you didn't expect to find million-year-old trees in your freezer...
MAR 16, 2021
Bet you didn't expect to find million-year-old trees in your freezer...
An accidental freezer clean-out has resulted in new insight into the climatic history of Greenland. Let me explain. In 2 ...
MAY 02, 2021
Plants & Animals
In 10 Years, Brazilian Amazon Emitted More Carbon Than it Absorbed
MAY 02, 2021
In 10 Years, Brazilian Amazon Emitted More Carbon Than it Absorbed
New work in Nature Climate Change has determined that in the last decade, the Brazilian Amazon released over 20% more ca ...
MAY 06, 2021
Earth & The Environment
How big of a risk do tsunamis actually pose?
MAY 06, 2021
How big of a risk do tsunamis actually pose?
New research published in Nature Geoscience suggests that there is a greater risk from earthquakes and tsunamis tha ...
JUN 07, 2021
Health & Medicine
Higher Incidence of Breast Cancer in Polluted Urban Areas
JUN 07, 2021
Higher Incidence of Breast Cancer in Polluted Urban Areas
A Taiwanese study looked at the incidence of breast cancer in areas of Taiwan with varying levels of air pollutants. Air ...
JUN 17, 2021
Genetics & Genomics
Fish Adapted to Toxins Pass Epigenetic Changes Onto Offspring
JUN 17, 2021
Fish Adapted to Toxins Pass Epigenetic Changes Onto Offspring
Parents pass down their genes to their offspring, and it seems that epigenetic features, which can affect gene activity ...
Loading Comments...