Climate change is allegedly contributing to a rise in flight turbulence, according to a recent study by the UK-based Reading University. The study suggests that clear-air turbulence, which is particularly challenging for pilots to evade, has seen an alarming 55% surge from 1979 to 2020 along a high-traffic North Atlantic route. This escalation is reportedly tied to shifts in wind velocity at high altitudes, a result of the increased warmth from carbon emissions.
The study's co-author, Prof Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist, stated, "Our research of the past decade suggested future climatic shifts will heighten clear-air turbulence. The latest evidence indicates that this process may have already started." He urged for investments in superior turbulence detection and prediction technologies to avoid increasingly rougher flights in the upcoming years.
Routes across the North Atlantic and the USA were impacted the most by turbulence increments, but significant increases were also noted across Europe, the Middle East, and the South Atlantic. Prof Williams attributed the heightened turbulence to an amplified wind shear in the jet stream—a strong air current flowing from west to east, located five to seven miles above the Earth's surface.
Though satellites are unable to directly detect turbulence, they can observe the jet stream's formation and configuration. Radar can capture turbulence triggered by storms, but clear-air turbulence remains predominantly invisible and challenging to discern.
Besides making flights uncomfortable, turbulence can potentially lead to injuries. Although severe turbulence is infrequent, clear-air turbulence can occur unexpectedly, posing risks to unbuckled passengers. Prof Williams advises passengers to keep their seat belts fastened whenever seated, which he asserts will likely ensure their safety even in extreme turbulence.
Additionally, turbulence incurs financial and environmental implications. The aviation sector incurs losses between $150m and $500m per year in the US due to turbulence-related effects, which include aircraft wear and tear. Moreover, pilots burn extra fuel to bypass turbulence, contributing to the environmental cost. The findings of the study are published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal.