The Lufthansa flight that had to land shortly after takeoff is just one recent example of extreme turbulence. Pilots report an average of 5,500 encounters with severe or greater turbulence each year. And that number has increased in recent years because of climate change.
Many events took place on the ground in 2023, the pilot had to abort the landing due to severe turbulence on the Southwest flight, when the total turbulence injured 25 people on the Hawaiian Airlines flight. On the Lufthansa flight, many were also injured on board.
And while death from turbulence is extremely rare, a passenger in the business died on the fourth of March. Experts expect severe turbulence to increase in the coming years as severe weather patterns continue around the world.
What is the worst disturbance?
Turbulence is any irregular and unexpected change in air movement that affects the altitude and motion of the aircraft. It can run the gamut from a slight bump or bump to severe sticking and rolling that creates nausea or injury, such as hitting the seat head.
The main causes of turbulence for commercial aircraft include storms, atmospheric pressure and water winds.
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Pilots typically use their eyes, radar, and reports from other planes to spot storms and other signs of turbulence before the plane starts to take off. This gives them time to turn on the “fasten seat belt” sign and instruct passengers to take their seats.
But pilots must also deal with a clear sky, which has no visible cause.
Turbulence in a clear sky can overwhelm a plane before the pilot can warn it, making it extremely dangerous, and this type of turbulence is on the rise due to climate change.
The link between climate change and clear cloudy skies
One of the main culprits in stormy weather is wind shear, which is a sudden change in the speed and direction of the winds, especially in the force of the river.
“With winds blowing from the west at 100 mph at 9 miles and even blowing from the north at only 25 mph at 6 miles or directly below, it can be very turbulent because of the movement of those 2-foot heights,” it said. Stephen Bennett, chairman of the American Meteorological Society’s Committee on Climate and Climate Risk, and co-founder and director of the Demex Group.
Clearly, high winds shear the unstable jet stream and create faster winds.
Both play a significant role in cloudy skies, and as global temperatures change, wind shear has already increased by 15% since 1979.
Also, these turbulences tend to develop around the upper level of the wicker stream, where they tend to fly flat. These wind bands are fueling rapid global warming, according to Isabel Smith, a meteorologist and PhD student at the University of Reading and author of the 2023 paper on North Atlantic turbulence.
He is currently looking for changes in this type of turbulence in relation to climate change.
Smith explained the growth of conservative gas traps in the troposphere, the atmospheric bath closest to the surface. But this heat had to be released into the stratosphere, which is another layer.
As a result, the troposphere is warming globally while the stratosphere is cooling at an accelerating rate.
“This gradient increases the temperature between the 2 layers, which strengthens the jet stream, which in turn creates more unstable wind flow and increases turbulence in the clean air,” adds Smith.
Meteorological researchers further predict that these disturbances will double by 2000, with the most severe ones increasing.
“Flight at higher altitudes over the North Atlantic will encounter increased turbulence,” Maro said.
Airlines could avoid more expensive and longer journeys
This type of turbulence causes a large percentage of weather-related accidents in flights. And turbulence in general is the cause of injury among the flight attendants.
Although experts report that the effects of climate change will only get worse, chances are you don’t have to worry about increased disruption to future flights.
“As long as it seems like flying might become more dangerous because of climate change, it’s not that simple,” Maro said, in part because air-flying systems will likely have to be adapted so that flights avoid highly turbulent areas.
“I also hope that emerging new technology will make clear sky turbulence detection easier for decades to come,” Maro said. “Even considering the impacts of climate change, it is likely that flights will become safer over time rather than more dangerous.”
Smith added that serious disruption is still rare.
“If you fly across the Atlantic from, say, New York to London, there’s a chance that only 3% of the atmosphere has mild turbulence. Only 1% of the atmosphere has moderate turbulence and a few tenths of a percent has turbulence,” he determined.
“This acceptance is increasing, so you may find it more turbulent in the future. But it will be much more mild turbulence that will not cause serious injury.”
But he also added that the airline always tries to avoid turbulence as much as possible.
Increased turbulence will therefore likely lead to more complicated flight paths, which could mean longer journeys and waiting times, with increased emissions of aircraft food and CO2.
In fact, avoiding turbulence costs airlines an additional 22 million dollars -20.64 million euros- each year, with extra emissions of 70 million kilograms of CO2. The planes could also spend about 2,000 additional hours in the air each year.
As for flying safely, Maro and Faber offered the same advice: Always wear your seatbelt when sitting, even where the seatbelt sign is gone.