Buckle Up: Climate Change to Increase Flight Turbulence a Whopping 40 Percent


Clear-air turbulence is one of those terms that sounds like it might be okay—it is “clear” after all. In fact, it refers to severely turbulent air movement that occurs in the absence of any visual cues such as clouds. This is not good for airline pilots or passengers.

And it gets worse.

A new study to be published in the journal Nature Climate Change states that global warming will cause the frequency of turbulence on flights between Europe and North America to double by 2050 and that its intensity could increase by up to 40 percent. That's on top of data from previous research that suggests that clear-air turbulence across the Atlantic has already increased by between 40 and 90 percent since 1958. 



Dr. Paul Williams, a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Reading in the Department of Meteorology and the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, led the study. He tells TakePart he had previously worked on developing a better method for predicting aviation turbulence, but realized one day that no one had ever studied how it might respond to climate change.

“It was natural to think that it would, because climate change is modifying upper-level winds in the atmosphere, and turbulence is sensitive to these winds,” he says. A report on Williams’ work that appeared in The Guardian elaborated on this point, noting: “Climate change is heating the Arctic faster than lower latitudes, because of the rapid loss of reflective sea ice, so the temperature difference is growing. That leads to stronger jet streams and greater turbulence.”

For their study, Williams explains that, “We took one of the world’s best climate models, developed at Princeton, and compared a high-CO2 simulation with a pre-industrial simulation. We focused on transatlantic airspace in winter, and calculated 21 estimates of turbulence, which allowed us to study changes to the frequency and intensity.”

“We found that the average strength of turbulence in the atmosphere could increase by between 10 percent and 40 percent,” says Williams. “Although it was natural to expect an increase, we were probably not expecting to see figures this high. Further work is needed to narrow the uncertainty range.”

Williams also mentioned to The Guardian that, “Rerouting flights to avoid stronger patches of turbulence could increase fuel consumption and carbon emissions, make delays at airports more common, and ultimately push up ticket prices.”

Today’s lesson: Like the flight attendants always say, “It’s best to keep your seat belt fastened at all times.”

Are you surprised to learn there’s such a strong connection between rising temperatures and air turbulence?

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Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com