People, Environment

Climate Change Makes Flights More Bumpy

Severe turbulence could increase by 149% by the end of the century.Severe turbulence could increase by 149% by the end of the century.

Climate change has a variety of unexpected consequences. The latest: airplane turbulence.

Warmer air and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide are already affecting the movement of jet streams in the atmosphere. As the climate continues to warm, researchers expect instances of turbulence to increase, UPI reported.

Scientists used supercomputers to simulate the changes in air movement at cruising altitudes. Their analysis, detailed in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, suggests the prospects of severe turbulence between 30,000 and 40,000 feet will increase by 149% if levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are doubled.

The amount and severity of air turbulence planes experience depend on the strength of the jet stream. The stronger and faster the jet stream, the more turbulence passengers can expect. Putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere makes the jet stream stronger.

Every year, there are nearly 800 instances of severe turbulence—often occurring suddenly in clear air—injuring an average of 55 flight attendants and passengers traveling on United States carriers. Nearly 700 people suffer minor injuries and some suggest those numbers are overly conservative, as many incidents and injuries go unreported.

“For most passengers, light turbulence is nothing more than an annoying inconvenience that reduces their comfort levels, but for nervous fliers even light turbulence can be distressing,” lead researcher Paul Williams, a climate scientist at the University of Reading, said in a press release.

“However, even the most seasoned frequent fliers may be alarmed at the prospect of a 149% increase in severe turbulence, which frequently hospitalizes air travelers and flight attendants around the world.”

Light and moderate instances of turbulence are not likely to increase nearly as much severe turbulence. Scientists focused on severe turbulence in clear air because it is the most dangerous, as flight attendants and passengers are often unprepared.

Pre-industrial levels of carbon in the atmosphere were 280 parts per million. However, according to NASA data, that level is now at about 405 ppm.

“It is almost certain that we will reach double pre-industrial levels this century,” Williams told IBTimes UK.

He added that his top priority now is to investigate alternate flight routes.

“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,” he said. But, Williams isn’t the only one tackling this problem. IBM, which bought The Weather Company for $2 billion, recently teamed up with Gogo Inc. to give pilots a heads up when turbulence happens, so they can adjust their flight paths accordingly.

A few years ago, European aviation companies led by the French company Thales developed an on-board LIDAR system that could spot clear air turbulence up to 18 miles ahead of the plane. It worked, but it weighed 440 pounds, wasn’t terribly effective, and LIDAR still costs a fortune.

“Right now, it’s too expensive…There’s not so much interest from the aeronautics industry,” says Paul Vrancken of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the German Aerospace Agency, Wired reported.

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