Share

Climate Change Means Bumpier Flights, Scientists Say

Damian Carrington
Published: April 9, 2013

Getty Images

The study, which used the same turbulence models that air traffic controllers use every day, found that the frequency of turbulence on the many flights between Europe and North America will double by 2050 and its intensity increase by 10 percent to 40 percent.

Climate change will lead to bumpier flights caused by increased mid-air turbulence, according to an analysis by scientists of the impact of global warming on weather systems over the next four decades.

The increasing air turbulence results from the impact of climate change on the jet streams, the fast, mile-wide winds that whistle round the planet at the same altitude as airliners. The shifting of the jet stream over Europe has also been blamed for the UK's wash-out summer in 2012 and frozen spring this year.

The rough ride ahead joins other unexpected impacts of climate change, which include dodgier wi-fi and mobile phone signals and even slower marathon race times for athletes.

(MORE: 3 in 8 Americans Believe Global Warming a Hoax)

Paul Williams, at the University of Reading who led the new research, said: "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 $150 million (£100m) each year."

The study, which used the same turbulence models that air traffic controllers use every day, found that the frequency of turbulence on the many flights between Europe and North America will double by 2050 and its intensity increase by 10 percent to 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 research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, focused only clear-air turbulence, rather than the buffeting caused by major storms, which may also become more common in a warming world. "Clear-air turbulence is especially problematic to airliners, because it is invisible to pilots and satellites," said Manoj Joshi at the University of East Anglia, who also worked on the new study.

(MORE: Ancient Glacier Offers Climate Change Clues)

There is evidence that clear-air turbulence has already risen by 40 percent to 90 percent over Europe and North America since 1958, but that is set to increase further due to global warming. The jet streams, which meander for thousands of miles, are driven by the temperature difference between the poles and the tropics, Williams explained. Climate change is heating the Arctic faster than lower latitudes, because of the rapid loss of reflective sea ice, so the temperature difference is growing. That leads to stronger jet streams and greater turbulence. The modelling done by Williams and Joshi assumed that carbon dioxide levels will double from pre-industrial levels by 2050, which is in the mid-range of current projections for future emissions.

Most injuries caused by clear-air turbulence occur to passengers not wearing their seatbelts, who hit their heads on the aircraft's ceiling. Williams said his new findings, the first to assess the impact of climate change on turbulence, has already changed his own behavior: "I certainly always keep my seatbelt fastened now, which I didn't used to do."

MORE: Arctic Sea Ice Images

Arctic Sea Ice Extent on Aug. 26, 2012

Arctic Sea Ice Extent on Aug. 26, 2012

NASA

This visualization shows the extent of Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, 2012, compared to the average sea ice minimum from 1979 through 2010 shown in orange. The sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades, according to scientists from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

  • Arctic Sea Ice Extent on Aug. 26, 2012
  • East Greenland Sea Ice, Aug. 17
  • Summer Storm Spins Over the Arctic
  • Glassy Sea Ice with Iceberg
  • Sunset in the Arctic
  • Varied Arctic Sea Ice
  • Arctic Sea Ice Lead

Featured Blogs

Category 3 Odile the Strongest Hurricane on Record to Hit Baja

By Dr. Jeff Masters
September 15, 2014

Destructive Hurricane Odile powered ashore at Cabo San Lucas on Mexico's Baja Peninsula near 12:45 am EDT Monday as a Category 3 storm with 125 mph winds. Odile was the strongest hurricane on record to hit the Baja Peninsula, tied with Hurricane Olivia of 1967.

August 2014 Global Weather Extremes Summary

By Christopher C. Burt
September 12, 2014

August featured a record heat wave in the Baltics and Belarus, record cold in Northern Ireland, extreme rainfall events along the U.S. East Coast and in Michigan. Deadly flooding in Nepal and India killed at least 200 and Typhoon Halong hit Japan. A rare tropical storm struck the Big Island of Hawaii. Perth, Australia had its warmest August on record while Darwin measured its coldest August temperature on record.

Live Blog: Tracking Hurricane Arthur as it Approaches North Carolina Coast

By Shaun Tanner
July 3, 2014

This is a live blog set up to provide the latest coverage on Hurricane Arthur as it threatens the North Carolina Coast. Check back often to see what the latest is with Arthur. The most recent updates are at the top.

Tropical Terminology

By Stu Ostro
June 30, 2014

Here is some basic, fundamental terminology related to tropical cyclones. Rather than a comprehensive and/or technical glossary, this represents the essence of the meaning & importance of some key, frequently used terms.

2013-14 - An Interesting Winter From A to Z

By Tom Niziol
May 15, 2014

It was a very interesting winter across a good part of the nation from the Rockies through the Plains to the Northeast. Let's break down the most significant winter storms on a month by month basis.

What the 5th IPCC Assessment Doesn't Include

By Angela Fritz
September 27, 2013

Melting permafrost has the potential to release an additional 1.5 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, and could increase our global average temperature by 1.5°F in addition to our day-to-day human emissions. However, this effect is not included in the IPCC report issued Friday morning, which means the estimates of how Earth's climate will change are likely on the conservative side.