Expect Bumpier Flights As Climate Change Progresses

Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

““¦ And as a reminder, the captain recommends that you keep your seatbelt fastened while seated throughout the flight.”

The above was once regarded as overly cautious advice. However, new research from the University of Reading indicates that keeping your seatbelt fastened may become a strict and necessary requirement for those crossing the Atlantic in the coming decades. Their analysis of climate change has presented models showing a marked increase in bumpier flights caused by increased mid-air turbulence.

According to the research team, the increase in turbulent flights will be a direct result of the effects of climate change on jet streams, the fast-moving, mile-wide winds that surge around the planet at about the same altitude as jet aircraft. In addition to the expected increase in turbulent activity, European scientists have also attributed the change in the jet stream to the ℠wash-out summer´ of 2012 and frozen spring this year in the UK.

According to lead researcher Paul Williams of the University of Reading, “Air turbulence does more than just interrupt the service of in-flight drinks. It injures hundreds of passengers and aircrew every year. It also causes delays and damages planes, with the total cost to society being about £100m ($153 million) each year.”

In order to arrive at their results, the team employed turbulence models used by air traffic controllers every day. Their findings, they report, show that the frequency of turbulence for many flights between Europe and North America will double by the year 2050, while the intensity of the turbulence will see an increase of somewhere between 10 and 40 percent.

“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,” said Williams.

The team published their findings in the journal Nature Climate Change. Their study looked solely at clear-air turbulence rather than the buffeting caused by major storms. However, the researchers contend that storm-caused turbulence will likely increase as well in a warming world.

“Clear-air turbulence is especially problematic to airliners because it is invisible to pilots and satellites,” claimed study collaborator Manoj Joshi of the University of East Anglia.

This is not the first time an increase in clear-air turbulence has been observed. In fact, there is evidence that this form of turbulence has seen a 40 to 90 percent increase over Europe and North America since 1958. According to this new study, global warming is expected to cause a further increase in the number of flights experiencing pronounced bumpiness.

To understand this phenomenon, Williams explains the mechanics of the jet stream, stating that the air flow is driven by the temperature difference between the poles and the tropics. As climate change heats the Arctic faster than lower latitudes due to the rapid loss of reflective sea ice, the temperature difference is growing.

This leads to stronger and more turbulent jet streams. The modeling performed by Williams and Joshi assumed that carbon dioxide levels will likely double from pre-industrial levels by 2050. A doubling falls squarely in the mid-range of current projections for future emissions.

For passengers and crew who are caught unaware by clear-air turbulence, the most common injury suffered is due to not wearing seatbelts, which commonly causes them to hit their heads on the aircraft´s ceiling.

Williams claims that his findings — which happen to be the first ever to assess the impact of climate change on turbulence — have already led him to change his own behavior when flying.

“I certainly always keep my seatbelt fastened now, which I didn´t used to do.”