Expect more turbulent flights due to climate change

Climate change will make flying bumpier in the future

If you use air travel and plan on continuing to do so in the future, get ready for your flights to become longer, more expensive, and bumpier as the planet warms due to climate change.

These are the results of a new study published Monday April 8th in the journal Nature Climate Change, which represented the first research into the effects of climate change on 'clear-air turbulence'.

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The turbulence experienced during air travel is due to the plane passing through 'pockets' of rising and falling air. The air that the plane is traveling through usually has a fairly constant wind speed and direction, so the flight is smooth. However, at the speed the plane is traveling, it passes through these 'pockets' of rising and falling air very quickly, and the jarring change in wind direction and speed can cause a very rough ride for both passengers and crew.

Usually it's easy for pilots to spot turbulent conditions, as it's typically associated with cloudy or stormy weather, so they can just fly around it. However, 'clear-air turbulence' (CAT) is just as it sounds — turbulence that happens without the tell-tail clouds — and this makes it far more dangerous. People have been injured due to their plane flying through CAT, one person was killed on United Airlines Flight 826, a 747 flight from Japan to Hawaii in 1997, and BOAC Flight 911 — a round-the-world flight in March 1966 — disintegrated in mid-air and crashed due to CAT, killing all 124 passengers and crew on board.

Rather than being caused by rising and falling air, clear-air turbulence is usually caused by an abrupt difference in wind speed between different layers of air (wind shear), or by the motion of the jet stream — a 'ribbon' of powerful winds that meanders through the atmosphere between the troposphere (where all of our weather happens) and the stratosphere (where the ozone layer is). The difference in wind speed causes swirling eddies in the air, and flying through these eddies causes the turbulence.

According to the research paper, as the troposphere warms due to climate change, this will strengthen the jet stream, causing larger and more powerful eddies in the atmosphere and thus making turbulence during air travel worse. This will be felt most during the winter, when turbulence is normally strongest, and the flights that will suffer the worse are those transatlantic flights that pass over the North Atlantic.

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"At cruise altitudes within 50–75° N and 10–60° W in winter, most clear-air turbulence measures show a 10–40% increase in the median strength of turbulence and a 40–170% increase in the frequency of occurrence of moderate-or-greater turbulence," the researchers wrote.

"Our results suggest that climate change will lead to bumpier transatlantic flights by the middle of this century," the study said. "Journey times may lengthen and fuel consumption and emissions may increase. Aviation is partly responsible for changing the climate, but our findings show for the first time how climate change could affect aviation."

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