Strong turbulence could become twice or even three times as common because of climate change, according to a new study from the University of Reading.
The study is the first ever to examine the future of severe turbulence, which causes planes to undergo random up-and-down motions that are stronger than gravity.
With severe turbulence, passengers are forced violently against their seat belts, any unsecured objects are tossed about, and food service and walking are impossible.
The study by Dr Paul Williams, hosted by NCAS at the University of Reading, examines several different turbulence strength levels, to investigate how they will each change in future. The results show that the average amount of light turbulence in the atmosphere will increase by 59%, with light-to-moderate turbulence increasing by 75%, moderate by 94%, moderate-to-severe by 127%, and severe by 149%.
Our new study paints the most detailed picture yet of how aircraft turbulence will respond to climate change. For most passengers, light turbulence is nothing more than an annoying inconvenience that reduces their comfort levels, but for nervous flyers even light turbulence can be distressing. However, even the most seasoned frequent flyers may be alarmed at the prospect of a 149% increase in severe turbulence, which frequently hospitalises air travellers and flight attendants around the world.
My top priority for the future is to investigate other flight routes around the world. We also need to investigate the altitude and seasonal dependence of the changes, and to analyse different climate models and warming scenarios to quantify the uncertainties.
Dr Paul Williams, University of Reading
The reason for the increases is that climate change is generating stronger wind shears within the jet stream. The wind shears can become unstable and are a major cause of turbulence.
The new study uses supercomputer simulations of the atmosphere to calculate how wintertime transatlantic clear-air turbulence will change at an altitude of around 12 km (39,000 feet) when there is twice as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – which is widely expected to occur later this century. The study is published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.