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While working for the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, Professor Paul Williams co-developed an air turbulence forecasting system which has helped make flying safer and smoother for up-to 2.5 billion passenger journeys.

Paul Williams, who is based at the University of Reading, led a team-effort to develop an algorithmn that predicts in-flight turbulence using gravity waves in the atmosphere. Paul's work has been used every day by the US National Weather Service since 2015, and has been shortlisted for the Natural Environment Research Council Impact Awards 2018.

Paul Williams2 credit Cass Productions 400The algorithm is used to create air turbulence forecasts, which are used by the aviation sector to plot safer flight routes. These low turbulence routes are also helping to make flying greener by reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

According to the best estimates, severe turbulence-related injuries account for 7,000 lost working days for flight attendants and turbulence costs the industry hundreds of millions of pounds a year. And, sometimes, it can be deadly. On smaller aircraft it is responsible for the deaths of around 40 people every year in the US alone.

Turbulence is increasing as global temperatures rise due to climate change, and Professor Williams has been working with aircraft engineers at Airbus to make sure that the next generation of planes is fit for a warmer and bumpier airspace. Watch Paul explain how his research has made a difference.

Professor Paul Williams said: "Turbulence is unpleasant to fly through and can be very distressing for nervous fliers. In severe cases, it can be dangerous, and we know it will become worse over the coming decades as the global climate warms. By developing better turbulence forecasting methods, and working with Airbus to ensure future aircraft design is informed by our climate change turbulence projections, we should have safer skies and help pilots avoid things that go bump in the flight."

Anaïs Mermet from Airbus said: “Professor Williams’ research has been a true motivation for Airbus to work on an automated turbulence-reporting function. We consider that his assessment of the evolution of turbulence phenomena in the future is a key point to demonstrate the interest of such a function.

“The research has contributed to increase Airbus’ understanding of the impacts that climate change may have on aircraft operations. Although much remains to be studied, it is key to anticipate as much as possible, notably through knowledge exchange between science and industry.”

Professor Paul Williams, with Professor John Knox, University of Georgia, USA, and Don McCann, McCann Aviation Weather Research Inc., USA led a team application for the NERC award, and the winning entry be announced at a ceremony at the Natural History Museum on 3 December 2018. 

Image credit: Cass Productions