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Buckle Up: Study Reveals Surge in Turbulence is Driven by Climate Change

Turbulence on popular transatlantic routes has increased by over 50 percent since the 1970s due to climate change's impact on warmer air

by Fergus Cole

June 23, 2023

Photo: Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Courtesy of Eva Darron / Unsplash

A recent study suggests that the frequency of turbulence during flights is rising worldwide, and the root cause is climate change.

Researchers at the University of Reading in the U.K. have analyzed turbulence rates over the last four decades, and they found that severe turbulence has increased by 55 percent on transatlantic flights between 1979 and 2020. It calculated this rise by analyzing a particularly popular transatlantic route, which saw 17.7 hours of severe turbulence in 1979, compared to 27.4 hours in 2020.

Over the same period, the study found that moderate turbulence also rose by 37 percent, from 70 hours per year to 96.1 hours, while light turbulence saw a rise of 17 percent, from 466.5 hours in 1979 to 546.8 hours in 2020.

Photo: Courtesy of Erwan Hesry / Unsplash

While transatlantic flights have seen the most significant increase in turbulence rates since 1979, the report also found substantial increases in turbulence in flights over Europe, the Middle East, and the South Atlantic.

The study’s authors claimed that this significant rise in turbulent flights is caused by warmer air across the globe, which in turn has been caused by human-led carbon emissions.

Turbulence is caused by pockets of air hitting each other at high speeds and is often exacerbated by warmer air. Clear air turbulence is also more volatile and trickier to predict than turbulence caused by storms, which can be picked up on radar.

“Following a decade of research showing that climate change will increase clear-air turbulence in the future, we now have evidence suggesting that the increase has already begun,” said Professor Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading and co-author of the report.

Photo: Amsterdam Schiphol. Courtesy of Ramon Kagie / Unsplash

“We should be investing in improved turbulence forecasting and detecting systems, to prevent the rougher air from translating into bumpier flights in the coming decades.”

Another study co-author, Mark Prosser, also called on the industry to do more to combat turbulent flights in the future, saying: “Turbulence makes flights bumpy and can occasionally be dangerous. Airlines will need to start thinking about how they will manage the increased turbulence, as it costs the industry $150-500 million annually in the USA alone.”

“Every additional minute spent traveling through turbulence increases wear-and-tear on the aircraft, as well as the risk of injuries to passengers and flight attendants,” Prosser said.

This $150-500 million figure seems to have been taken from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which said that costs are incurred due to injuries that require medical attention or result in lawsuits, damage caused to aircraft and cabins, and flight delays caused by severe turbulence. The agency also claims that turbulence causes around 40 fatalities each year.

Photo: Boeing’s Renton Factory, First 737 MAX. Courtesy of Boeing Commercial Airplanes

Professor Williams also told passengers that they should adhere to simple safety measures while in the air to negate the risk of being injured in a case of severe turbulence.

“Nobody should stop flying because they’re afraid of turbulence, but it is sensible to keep your seat belt fastened all the time unless you’re moving around, which is what the pilots do,” he said. “That is almost a guarantee that you will be safe even in the worst turbulence.”