Airplane landing at the airport runway at sunset
April 7, 2017

Climate change could make flying suck even more

In addition to the threat it poses to polar ice, the sea level, countless species of animals and even the global food supply, climate change could also make flying a more harrowing experience than it already is, according to research published this week in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.

The study, which was lead by University of Reading atmospheric scientist Paul Williams, found that increased amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide could cause changes to the jet streams that may cause severe turbulence to become twice as likely on any given flight by the 2050s.

As Quartz and Live Science explained, increased CO2 build up could cause differences between the jet stream (thin, high-altitude, high-speed air currents) and other regions of the atmosphere to become more pronounced, which in turn would cause airplanes to experience greater amounts of what is known as clean-air turbulence.

Clean-air turbulence occurs in the absence of clouds or other visual clues and takes place when bodies of air moving at different speeds come into contact. When airplanes encounter this kind of turbulence, they experience strong up-and-down movements that are stronger than gravity, which can jostle passengers, impair movement and cause unsecured objects to be flung around.

Now, Williams warns that such events will become more common because climate change will generate stronger wind shears within the jet stream. These wind shears, he warned, often become unstable and are one of the leading causes of clean-air turbulence of various strength levels.

Phenomenon could lead to increased airline-related hospitalizations

In fact, Williams examined five different severities of turbulence and found that each are likely to increase as a result of climate change. Light turbulence in the atmosphere will increase by 59 percent, while light-to-moderate turbulence would increase by 75 percent, moderate turbulence by 94 percent, moderate-to-severe by 127 percent and severe by 149 percent.

“Our new study paints the most detailed picture yet of how aircraft turbulence will respond to climate change,” Williams said in a statement. He and his colleagues used computer simulations of the atmosphere to determine how transatlantic clean-air turbulence will change at an altitude of approximately 39,000 feet (12 km) during the winter when CO2 levels are twice their current amounts – which, they said, is expected to happen within the next few decades.

So what do the findings mean? “For most passengers, light turbulence is nothing more than an annoying inconvenience that reduces their comfort levels,” he explained. “However, even the most seasoned frequent fliers may be alarmed at the prospect of a 149 percent increase in severe turbulence, which frequently hospitalizes air travelers and flight attendants around the world.”

“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,” Williams added.

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