Flights Will Become Three Times More Turbulent By 2050 Thanks To Climate Change


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

A turbulent wake being left behind a passenger jet. Fasttailwind/Shutterstock

Climate change is the problem that makes everything worse. Between meteorological disasters and economic ruin, we’d say we’re all in for a bumpy ride – and a new study has revealed that this is far more than just a metaphor.

According to a new Geophysical Research Letters study, after 2050, flights will experience up to three times more turbulence than they do now.


If you’re flying over the North Atlantic Ocean, you may get up to 180 percent more severe turbulence, the type that’ll accelerate you faster than gravity itself. Flights over North America will see an uptick of around 110 percent, and European aircraft will experience 160 percent more of those serious mid-air shakes.

The study’s coordinating author, Paul Williams – a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading – recently revealed that, for similar reasons, flights in some parts of the world will also get more expensive. If you hate flying, then we’re sorry, but the future won’t be any better.

This study focused on a phenomenon called clear-air turbulence, or CAT. It’s one of the largest causes of weather-related aviation incidences, in that it doesn’t down flights (anymore), but it can cause serious injuries to people on-board not strapped into their seats.

The percentage change in the amount of moderate turbulence by 2050-2080 during Autumnal flights. Paul Williams/University of Reading

As the name suggests, CAT occurs in clear skies, absent of all but a few clouds. When air masses move around the region in a chaotic, turbulent manner – normally because two bodies of air interact as they’re moving at different speeds and in different directions – any plane caught in them can experience anything from mild shaking to gut-wrenching drops and upswings.


Previous work by Williams and his colleagues has focused on jet streams, which are rapidly moving air currents within the upper atmosphere. They typically flow from west to east, something that pilots take advantage of to cut down on flight times.

Jet streams are powered by temperature differentials. In winter, the shadow-smothered Arctic Circle is extremely cold, and the tropical regions remain warm. This sets up a very strong jet stream compared to summer months – and as climate change continues to warm the equatorial bands, this type of jet stream will only get stronger.

This study once again looked into how the jet stream will change with the projected global temperature changes across "eight geographic regions, two flight levels, five turbulence strength categories, and all four seasons.” 

“The busiest international airspace experiences the largest increases,” the authors added. So, if you’re a frequent flier in a populous part of the world, expect to be stuck to your seat and thrown around at 11,900 meters (about 39,000 feet) far more often.


[H/T: ABC News]


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