Flight Turbulence: Climate Change Could Be to Blame For Worse Flights

Researchers Dr. Paul D. Williams and Manoj M. Joshi have recently published a report in the renowned scientific journal, Nature, which shows how climate change could negatively impact air travel between the Americas and Europe. Everyday, approximately 600 flights take place between the two regions. Disturbances to this pattern could have large social, environmental and economic impacts.

In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Williams noted: “Climate change is not only causing it to get warmer here at the bottom of the atmosphere where we live, climate change is also changing the basic structure of the atmosphere ten kilometers above our heads where planes fly.” The result will be more clear turbulence, which can’t be detected by sight or with current technology.

British Airways, which is one of the most frequent flyers between the Americas and Europe, released a statement to calm passenger’s concerns: “The technology and training to predict, avoid and mitigate turbulence has improved hugely over the past 20 years and we would expect that pattern to continue into the future.”

Turbulence results from vertical airflows hitting the wings of planes and essentially bouncing them around. Rising atmospheric temperatures increase the intensity of jet stream winds, thus creating stronger turbulence. The average strength of turbulence is expected to be 10-40% greater by midcentury. Williams described this trend as a “nuisance” that would result in little more than upset stomachs and spilt drinks; however, his work also revealed other trends that could prove more dangerous and even deadly.

The probability of flights encountering moderate or greater turbulence is set to double by midcentury because of climate change. Current turbulence levels reportedly cause about $150 million in damages. In trying to avoid turbulence, planes could have to fly longer distances. This would cause them to incur more costs and release increased levels of carbon into the atmosphere, further exacerbating the problem.

Manoj M. Joshi plans to research how climate change will affect travel between other parts of the world as well. Similar results are expected to be revealed.

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Laura Merli

Laura Merli is a first year Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management student at the New School.

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