Climate change increases the risk of severe turbulence on international flights
A new study led by NCAS’ Dr Paul Williams, based at the University of Reading, has calculated that climate change will significantly increase the amount of severe turbulence experienced by flights around the world by 2050–2080. Severe turbulence involves forces stronger than gravity, and is strong enough to throw people and luggage around an aircraft cabin. The study is an example of how the impacts of climate change can be felt through the circulation of the atmosphere, not just through increases in surface temperature.
Flights to the most popular international destinations are projected to experience the largest increases, with severe turbulence at a typical cruising altitude of 39,000 feet becoming up to two or three times as common throughout the year over the North Atlantic (+180%), Europe (+160%), North America (+110%), the North Pacific (+90%), and Asia (+60%).
The study also makes the first ever turbulence projections for the Southern Hemisphere and the tropical regions of the planet. The amount of airspace containing severe turbulence is calculated to increase over South America (+60%), Australia (+50%), and Africa (+50%).
The new research, published in Geophysical Research Letters, analyses supercomputer simulations of the future atmosphere with a focus on clear-air turbulence, which is particularly hazardous because it is invisible. The expected turbulence increases are a consequence of global temperature changes, which are strengthening wind instabilities at high altitudes in the jet streams and making pockets of rough air stronger and more frequent.
Dr Paul Williams, said: “Air turbulence is increasing across the globe, in all seasons, and at multiple cruising altitudes. This problem is only going to worsen as the climate continues to change. Our study highlights the need to develop improved turbulence forecasts, which could reduce the risk of injuries to passengers and lower the cost of turbulence to airlines.”
Full reference: N. Storer, P. D. Williams, M. M. Joshi (2017) Global Response of Clear-Air Turbulence to Climate Change. Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1002/2017GL074618.
The study is published as an open-access paper and is freely available to the public from http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/2017GL074618.