Hold on Tight. Climate Change Makes Flying Bumpier

April 7, 2017

Popular Science:

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.



6 Responses to “Hold on Tight. Climate Change Makes Flying Bumpier”

  1. vierotchka Says:

    I read a couple of articles about this yesterday. With the enormous number of airplanes flying at any time, things will get interesting or tragic.

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    Well Jesus H. Christ – my flights are going to get bumpier?

    Well, maybe we SHOULD do something about climate change, then. Let’s build bigger airplanes that can fly higher. And faster – less time to spend with potential bumpiness factor.

    Please stop printing articles like this one on air travel bumpiness. It’s just too damned depressing. I’m gonna have to go out now and drive my Hummer over some dirt roads. She rides over washboard like a dream, like a creampuff.

  3. Tom Bates Says:

    Basically BS junk science. It is all models, guess work and speculation dressed up as science. l Go read the actual paper.

  4. Tom Bates Says:

    For those who cannot read. The paper is simply a bunch of modeling and says all this will happen when CO2 is doubled which means from 400 ppm to 800 ppm. What the modeling does not do and never bothers to mention is the CO2 increased from 280 to 400 ppm and somehow present day turbulence is not sending thousands of planes passengers to the hospital from turbulence which if the model was correct is a lot more than it was at 280 ppm. CO2 has almost doubled and the turbulence is barely a blip.

  5. Lionel Smith Says:

    Could make Cruising a whole lot bumpier too.

    There are echoes of 1912 here too for unusual conditions had set more bergs than usual off into the shipping lanes. I have studied the Titanic disaster intensely over the years, from many aspects including nautical and engineering, one of the contributing factors was the unusual state of the sea and atmosphere that overlay it making spotting bergs and judging distances difficult.

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