How climate change is making airplane turbulence worse

  • You may experience more turbulence on future flights, particularly on transatlantic routes.
  • Climate change has altered the jet stream, resulting in more unpredictable turbulence in the clear air.
  • For a safe flight, experts recommend remaining seated when the seat belt light is on and buckling up at all times.

A Lufthansa flight that had to land shortly after takeoff is just the latest example of extreme turbulence.

Pilots report an average of 5,500 encounters with severe or major turbulence each year. And that number has increased in recent years thanks to climate change.

In 2023 alone, several other events have occurred. The pilot aborted the landing due to severe turbulence on a Southwest flight, while extreme turbulence on a Hawaiian Airlines flight injured 25 people. Several people on board were injured on the Lufthansa flight.

And while death from turbulence is very rare, on March 4, a passenger on a corporate jet died during severe turbulence.

Experts predict severe turbulence could increase in the coming years as severe weather patterns continue around the world.

Why is the turbulence getting worse?

delta turbulence

Severe aircraft turbulence can be extremely dangerous for passengers and flight attendants.

Joe Justice/Scrum Inc

Turbulence is any erratic and unexpected change in air movement that affects an aircraft’s altitude and motion.

It can range from a slight tug or jolt to severe pitching and rolling that causes nausea or injury, such as: B. if your head hits the seat.

Major causes of turbulence in airliners and airliners are storms, atmospheric pressure and jet streams.

Generally, pilots use their eyes, radar, and reports from other aircraft to spot storms and other signs of impending turbulence before the aircraft begins to shake. This gives them time to turn on the “Buckle up, fasten your seatbelts” sign and tell the passengers to take their seats.

But pilots also have to contend with clear air turbulence, i.e. turbulence without a visible cause.

Clear air turbulence can cause the plane to shake and shudder before the pilot can issue a warning, making it particularly dangerous – and this type of turbulence is increasing due to climate change.

The link between climate change and clear air turbulence

jfk turbulence injuries

In this still, from video provided by WNBC-TV News 4 New York, medical emergency personnel attend to an injured passenger on a Turkish Airlines flight at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Saturday, March 9, 2019.

WNBC-TV News 4 New York via Associated Press

A major cause of turbulence in clear air is wind shear, which is a sudden change in wind speed and direction, particularly in jet streams.

“When the wind is blowing from the west at 100 mph at 30,000 feet and blowing from the north at 20,000 feet or just below at just 30 mph, it can be quite turbulent for an aircraft flying between those two altitudes said Stephen Bennett, chair of the Financial Weather and Climate Risk Committee of the American Meteorological Society and co-founder and chief climate officer of Demex Group.

In short, high wind shear creates an unstable jet stream and faster winds.

Both play important roles in turbulence in clear air, and changing global temperatures have already increased wind shear by 15% since 1979.

Also, clear air turbulence tends to develop around upper-level jet streams, where aircraft typically fly. These fast-moving bands of wind are intensifying with global warming, said Isabel Smith, a meteorologist and PhD student at the University of Reading and lead author of a 2023 article on turbulence trends in clear air over the North Atlantic.

She is currently researching the shifts in clear air turbulence caused by climate change.

Smith said the increase in greenhouse gases traps heat in the troposphere, the layer of the atmosphere closest to the surface. But that heat should have been released into the stratosphere, which is the next layer above. As a result, the troposphere is warming globally while the stratosphere is rapidly cooling.

“This increases the temperature gradient between the two layers, which increases the jet stream, which in turn creates a more unstable wind flow and increases turbulence in clear air,” Smith said.

Weather researchers further predict that clear air turbulence will double by 2050, with severe turbulence increasing the most.

“The highest altitude flights over the North Atlantic will encounter the most notable increase in severe turbulence,” Bennett said.

Airlines could take longer and more expensive routes to avoid turbulence

Singapore Airlines turbulence mess

Planes may need to divert and take longer routes in the future to avoid turbulence, which could increase costs.

Instagram / Alan Cross

Clear air turbulence causes a large percentage of weather-related accidents on flights. And turbulence in general is the number one cause of injury to flight attendants.

Even though experts predict that the effects of climate change will only get worse, you most likely don’t need to worry about increasing turbulence on future flights.

“While it may seem like climate change could make flying more dangerous, it just isn’t that simple,” Bennett said — in part because air duct systems will likely adapt to allow flights to avoid highly turbulent areas.

“I also anticipate that emerging technologies will make it easier to detect turbulence in clear air in the coming decades,” Bennet said. “Even given the effects of climate change, it’s actually likely that flights will become safer, rather than more dangerous, over time.”

Smith added that severe turbulence remains very rare.

“For example, if you fly across the Atlantic from New York to London, only 3% of the atmosphere is likely to have mild turbulence. Only 1% of the atmosphere has moderate turbulence, and a few tenths of a percent have this severe turbulence,” she said.

“That percentage is increasing, so you may see more turbulence in the future. But this is much more likely to be light turbulence that won’t cause serious injury,” Smith said.

However, she adds that airlines always try to avoid turbulence as much as possible. As such, increased turbulence is likely to result in more complicated flight routes, which could mean longer travel and waiting times, and increased fuel burn and CO2 emissions from aircraft.

In fact, avoiding turbulence can cost airlines an additional $22 million each year, with additional emissions of 70 million kilograms of CO2, Smith said. Planes could also spend about 2,000 extra hours in the air annually, a research letter found.

When it comes to flying safely, Bennett and Smith offer the same advice: Always wear your seat belt when you are seated, even if the seat belt sign is off.

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