Hold on Tight. Climate Change Makes Flying Bumpier
April 7, 2017
Airplane passengers are in for an increasingly bumpy ride according to a study released today in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences. Climate change is altering the jet stream, making severe turbulence more likely. The study builds on earlier work which found that climate change would lead to bumpier airplane rides. What makes the new research unique is that it quantifies how much different kinds of turbulence will increase—59 percent in the case of light turbulence, a 94 percent increase in moderate turbulence, and 149 percent increase in severe turbulence.
For the one in four Americans who are afraid of flying, any jostling could be considered severe. But like an earthquake, turbulence is rated on a scale. One is light—gentle enough so passengers may not notice it—three is moderate, or enough to jostle a drink, five is severe, and seven is extreme.
“Anything above five is by definition stronger than gravity,” says study autho Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. “What that means is that anything that’s not strapped in will potentially be projected around inside the plane. That would include passengers.”
Pilots know how to handle turbulence, of course, and get real-time updates of turbulent air from air traffic control and other pilots on the same flight path. Technology can help, too.
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,” says Paul Vrancken of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the German Aerospace Agency. “There’s not so much interest from the aeronautics industry to do it.”
Still, some big names in aviation want to tackle this problem. The new Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner, for example, sports nosecone sensors that detect turbulence ahead and send signals to computers controlling the rudder, ailerons, and other control surfaces to dampen the effects of turbulence before passengers even feel them.
Technology and training may mitigate the impacts of increasingly turbulent flights, but in the meantime, it may be a good idea to keep your seat belt fastened, even when the light isn’t on.