AUSTIN (KXAN) – If you have noticed increasingly bumpier flights over the years, new research suggests you may not be imagining it. Scientists have shown that as the earth has warmed airplane turbulence has intensified, and their research suggests that is only going to get worse.
In a study published Thursday, scientists found that a type of air turbulence has increased by 55% from 1979 to 2020. Further, the researchers suggest that this type of turbulence — clear-air turbulence — will intensify in response to a worsening climate.
What causes turbulence?
“There are [several] causes of flight turbulence. One is things like clouds that you can see, and they create turbulence. There are also waves created by mountains when wind floats over them, and they create turbulence,” said professor Ramalingam Saravanan, head of the Texas A&M Department of Atmospheric Sciences.
“The last two types, you cannot see it as you can a cloud. You see clear air, and a plane flies through it, then you feel turbulent. That’s why it’s called clear air turbulence,” he continued.
Turbulence caused by storms and mountains can be largely avoided with mapping tools, but because clear air turbulence is – well – clear, it can be harder to track.
How does it work?
Increases in greenhouse gas emissions – like, carbon dioxide and methane – cause the atmosphere to warm and the stratosphere over the Earth’s poles to cool, Saravanan said.
Saravanan said that this effect causes an increase in a phenomenon called wind shear, a change in wind speed and direction over a short distance, and results in a bumpier ride for air flight passengers.
“Wind shear sets up the conditions for turbulence,” Saravanan said.
“We can show with computer models that if you put an increase in greenhouse gases into the future, the wind shear is going to increase,” he continued. “Using [those models], we can predict the turbulence is likely to increase.”
Should you be worried?
Though a bumpy ride on a flight can be unsettling for some, Saravanan said that air travel is still very safe and will likely continue to be so. He said only a few people have died from air turbulence in the last two decades.
“So it’s a very, very small number. Even If it doubles, it’s not going to make a huge difference compared to other things,” he said. “[Air turbulence] going to be a factor, but it’s not going to prevent flying.”
Saravanan said that climate change will also change wind speeds. Currently, a flight from San Francisco to New York takes a little over five hours. Conversely, a flight from New York to San Francisco will take nearly six and a half hours because planes are going against the wind in this direction. Saravanan said because climate change affects wind speeds, it will also likely affect flight times.
“There are many other reasons to reduce our carbon emissions, like increased rainfall, droughts and heat waves. If you asked me to list the top things to worry about with climate change, turbulence wouldn’t be in the top five,” Saravanan said. “But it is an interesting effect,” he continued.