Bumpier Skies Ahead, Thanks to Climate Change

Bumpier Skies Ahead, Thanks to Climate Change

Airplane passengers around the world could be in for a bumpier ride because of climate change, new research suggests.

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By mid-century, the likelihood of severe air turbulence along popular international flight routes will probably multiply, British scientists say.

"Air turbulence is increasing across the globe, in all seasons, and at multiple cruising altitudes," said study lead author Paul Williams.

"This problem is only going to worsen as the climate continues to change," said Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading.

Severe turbulence at the routine cruising altitude of 39,000 feet will become two to three times more common over the North Atlantic and Europe, the study predicted.

North American flights could see more than a doubling of rough air pockets, while the skies over the North Pacific and Asia will become 90 percent and 60 percent bumpier, respectively, according to the study.

The researchers said air turbulence is also expected to intensify in the Southern Hemisphere.

Severe turbulence is strong enough to throw people and luggage around an aircraft cabin, the researchers noted.

The findings were published recently in Geophysical Research Letters.

"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," Williams said in a journal news release.

For the study, researchers analyzed computer simulations of the future atmosphere. Due to predicted global temperature changes, they calculated that wind instability at high altitudes would start to intensify by mid-century, between 2050 and 2080. This could increase the odds of rough air pockets.

"The study is another example of how the impacts of climate change can be felt through the circulation of the atmosphere, not just through increases in surface temperature itself," said study co-author Manoj Joshi, a senior lecturer in climate dynamics at the University of East Anglia.

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Turbulence is by far the most common cause of serious injuries to flight attendants. It's thought to cost U.S. air carriers up to $200 million annually, the research team noted.

More information

NASA provides more on climate change.


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