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Buckle up: Climate change may cause bumpier flights

April 08, 2013|By Monte Morin
  • A new study predicts that global warming will result in bumpier transatlantic flights.
A new study predicts that global warming will result in bumpier transatlantic… (Marcus Brandt / AFP / Getty…)

Are you the kind of air traveler who turns green when your plane encounters air turbulence? Do you always have a beverage in your hand when the captain illuminates the "fasten seat belts" sign and apologizes for a bit of mid-flight "chop"?

If so, you might consider booking a cruise ship instead of flying the friendly skies in the coming years. A study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change predicts that global warming will cause bumpier transatlantic flights by the middle of this century.

English researchers say that climate-warming greenhouse gasses will probably increase so-called clear-air turbulence along major air routes. Such turbulence is caused by columns of vertically moving air and is difficult to avoid because it cannot be spotted by pilots, satellites or radar.

Using climate change models and jet stream data, study authors examined the possible effects on the North Atlantic flight corridor during  winter months. They calculated that the chances of encountering significant turbulence will increase between 40% and 170%. They also predict that the average strength of turbulence will increase between 10% and 40%.

"Air turbulence does more than just interrupt the service of in-flight drinks," read a statement from lead study author Paul Williams, an atmospheric researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Science, at the University of Reading. "It injures hundreds of passengers and aircrew every year -- sometimes fatally. It also causes delays and damage to planes."

Williams, and co-author Manoj Joshi, a climatologist at the University of East Anglia, note that the behavior and mechanics of air turbulence are still not fully understood.

They caution also that a given percentage change in air turbulence "does not necessarily imply the same percentage increase in the sensation of turbulence by travelers."

However, they wrote that a significant increase in turbulence could result in major changes in air travel.

"Flight paths may need to become more convoluted to avoid patches of turbulence that are stronger and more frequent, in which case journey times will lengthen and fuel consumption and emissions will increase."

Return to Science Now Blog.

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