Airplane Rides Are About to Get 3 Times Bumpier, Warn Scientists

Buckle up, y'all.


Buckle up y’all, the future is going to be a bumpy ride. Climate change is already flooding cities, drowning art, and ravaging our sanity, and now scientists say it’s going to make flying even worse than it already is. In a paper published Tuesday, University of Reading scientists predict that increased turbulence will plague the voyages of future air travelers, which means that flights will be even more dangerous and will involve spending even more time strapped down to our seats.

In Geophysical Research Letters, the scientists explain how they used a “current-generation” climate model to calculate how strong turbulence will be around the world, given the changing weather patterns. Plugging in data from eight geographic regions, two flight levels, five turbulence strength categories, and the average weather of all four seasons, they found that the average frequency of clean-air turbulence (CAT) — the tumultuous movement of air masses when clouds aren’t interfering — will triple from its current frequency sometime between 2050 and 2080.

Maps of the average percentage change in the amount of moderate CAT from preindustrial times to the period 2050-2080.

Luke Storer

Unfortunately, they predict turbulence will increase the most in the airspaces where there are the most flights. Severe CAT, the researchers report, will double over North America, the North Pacific, and Europe. The less congested skies above Africa, South America, and Australia are expected to experience a smaller increase.

All of these changes, the researchers write, can be chalked up to climate change. In the highly congested airspaces, the increased CAT will be a result of the anticipated doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration in the air there. In a paper published in April in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences Paul Williams, Ph.D., also of the University of Reading, explained that increased carbon dioxide causes spikes in air turbulence because they change the temperature of the air, which in turn changes air currents.

Planes, for their part, are pretty crap for the environment: A round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco causes a warming effect equal to two or three tons of carbon dioxide per person. An area like the North Atlantic flight corridor can witness more than 300 flights per day in each direction.

Turbulence caused by cumulus clouds.

Max Pixel

While planes can experience turbulence from events like storms and cold weather fronts, clear-air turbulence is defined as high-altitude bumpiness caused by strong vertical wind shear in regions without significant cloudiness. That is, in part, what makes it so dangerous: Pilots can’t detect CAT, and a violent aircraft can be thrown without warning. Accordingly, CAT is one of the largest causes of weather-related aviation incidents: An estimated 45 passengers are already injured by turbulence on a U.S.-operated airline each year, the study authors point out, and this number is likely much higher because of under-reporting.

Because the turbulent future is a dangerous one, the study authors write that the time for aeronautical advancements to be developed to cope with it is now. There’s an urgent need to improve the skill of operational CAT forecasts, they argue, and something like an onboard light detection of CAT could make all the difference.

If you liked this article, check out this video of a detachable airplane cabin for in-flight emergencies.

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