Airplane turbulence will become three times more common by 2050-2080 due to climate change. Research results of scientists and expert comments were published by Newsweek.
The natural cause of turbulence is a change in the speed and direction of the wind in the atmosphere in certain areas. When the plane gets into such air currents, it can shake quite a lot. In recent years, there have been more and more reports of such incidents on commercial flights. After one of them, flight attendants even began to demand a ban on carrying babies in their arms.
Scientists from the University of Reading in the UK published a study confirming that vertical wind shear in jet streams has increased by 15% since the first observations in 1979 year. This is associated with global climate change.
Study co-author Paul Williams, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, said: “We have collected a large amount of scientific evidence that turbulence is increasing due to climate change. An invisible form of turbulence called open air turbulence is due to wind shear, which due to climate change is now 15% stronger than it was in the 1970s. We expect further increases in wind shear over the coming decades, possibly doubling or tripling the number of severe turbulence events.”
There have been several incidents of severe turbulence in recent months. In early March, 7 people were hospitalized after a Lufthansa flight from Austin, Texas to Frankfurt, Germany, hit heavy air currents. There were 184 people on board, including crew members. The plane was forced to change route, but eventually landed safely.
In December 2022, a Hawaiian Airlines flight en route from Phoenix, Arizona to Honolulu, Hawaii encountered severe turbulence, injuring 25 people. According to the airline, there were 278 passengers, 8 flight attendants and 2 pilots on board. The turbulence was so severe that it damaged the interior of the aircraft.
On most commercial flights, children under the age of two are allowed to sit on their parents' lap during the flight. However, recent cases of extreme turbulence are of concern to the AFA-CWA Flight Attendant Association, as injuries will increase more if this trend continues.
Thus, one infant on board a Lufthansa flight was sitting on his mother's lap and flew out of her arms, reported the Independent. A passenger told a British newspaper that the plane went into a “free fall” and people were “flying into the air”, some even hitting the ceiling. Therefore, now flight attendants are in favor of a ban on carrying children in their arms.
It is not known exactly when the turbulence situation may worsen. But it's no secret that climate change is happening at a rapid pace. Researchers at the University of Reading are confident that human-induced climate change could triple the number of strong turbulences by 2050-2080. Although it is not clear if this will also increase the number of injuries on commercial flights.
“Science tells us that climate change is making the atmosphere more turbulent. However, whether flights become more dangerous is another question, because other factors also play a role. The turbulence forecasts that pilots use to plan smooth flight routes are improving all the time, modern aircraft are better able to cope with turbulence, and passenger compliance with seat belt recommendations is also very important. Whether a more turbulent atmosphere will lead to more injuries remains a question,” said Paul Williams.
Ethan Coffel, assistant professor of geography and environment at Syracuse University, also commented on the impact of climate change on flights: “There are three main changes in the organization of flights in the new conditions: a decrease in cargo capacity on some flights due to rising temperatures, an increase in clear air turbulence on some routes and changes in fuel consumption on some routes due to changes in upper wind speeds.”
Even if turbulence increases, this does not mean that flying will become more dangerous. In fact, despite the recent rise in turbulence incidents in which people have been injured, this remains a fairly rare occurrence. The number of flights reporting turbulence-related injuries is very low compared to the total number of commercial flights worldwide, which reached almost 39 million in 2019 before the start of the COVID pandemic.
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