- Research shows that airplane turbulence could be increasing because of climate change and become three times as common by 2050 to 2080.
- There have been several cases of severe turbulence in recent years.
- Flight attendants are calling for “lap babies” to be banned on flights following a recent incident.
- Research into the issue can help inform pilots in the future.
Although not a pleasant experience, turbulence is a normal and sometimes inevitable part of flying.
But it could be getting a lot worse—because of climate change.
Here’s the reason why. Turbulence is caused by wind shear—a variation in wind speeds and directions that occurs over a short distance in the atmosphere. When a plane hits these strong wind currents, it can push or pull the plane in different directions—this is what causes the turbulence. Commercial aircraft will usually fly high above these patterns to avoid it occurring often, but it can happen at many different altitudes.
In a 2019 study published in Nature, scientists at the University of Reading in the U.K. found that the vertical shear in jet streams has increased by 15 percent since observations first began in 1979.
Co-author of the study Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, told Newsweek: “We have accumulated a large body of scientific evidence now that turbulence is increasing because of climate change. An invisible form called clear-air turbulence is generated by wind shear, which, because of climate change, is now 15 percent stronger than in the 1970s. We expect a further strengthening of the wind shear in the coming decades, perhaps doubling or trebling the amount of severe turbulence.”
The situation seems to be playing out in real time. There have been several incidents in recent months involving severe turbulence.
In early March, seven people were hospitalized after severe turbulence hit a Lufthansa flight from Austin, Texas, to Frankfurt, Germany, NBC reported. The flight, carrying 184 people including crew members, was forced to divert but eventually landed safely.
In December 2022, a Hawaiian Airlines flight heading from Phoenix, Arizona to Honolulu, Hawaii, encountered severe turbulence that injured 25 people.
According to Hawaiian Airlines, the flight was carrying 278 passengers, eight flight attendants and two pilots. The turbulence was so severe that it damaged the interior of the plane.
There have also been incidents in previous years, indicating that the problem has been worsening for some time.
In 2021, an American Airlines flight en route to Florida was diverted to Louisiana after turbulence hurt 10 people on board.
In 2019, at least 35 people were injured after an Air Canada flight, traveling from Toronto, Canada to Sydney, Australia, hit sudden turbulence. The flight was forced to land in Honolulu.
So what can be done about it?
Recently, flight attendants have renewed calls for “lap babies” on flights to be banned.
On most commercial flights, children of two years or younger are allowed to sit on a parent’s lap during a flight. However, recent incidents of extreme turbulence have the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) concerned that injuries will take place if this continues.
Sara Nelson, the leader of the AFA-CWA, told The Washington Post that this has been a concern for decades, not just now.
“We’ve seen airplanes go through turbulence recently and drop 4,000 feet in a split second,” she told the news outlet. “The G-forces are not something even the most loving mother or father can guard against and hold their child. It’s just physically impossible.”
One infant aboard the Lufthansa flight had been sitting on a mother’s lap and flew out of her arms, the Independent reports. A passenger told the U.K.-based newspaper that the plane had gone into a “free fall,” and people went “flying into the air,” with some even hitting the ceiling.
It is not clear exactly when the situation could worsen. But it is no secret that climate change is worsening rapidly.
Since 1880, the Earth’s temperature has risen by 0.14 degrees Fahrenheit, on average per decade, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate.gov site. This equals about two degrees Fahrenheit in total. But since 1981, the rate of warming is twice as fast, at 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit per decade.
University of Reading researchers estimate that human-induced climate change could make bad turbulence up to three times as common by the years 2050 to 2080. But it is not clear whether this will increase the amount of injuries seen on commercial flights. And although there have been several recent instances of severe turbulence, this does not mean it is already the new norm, or connected to climate change, yet.
“What the science is telling us is that climate change is making the atmosphere more turbulent. However, whether flights are becoming bumpier and more dangerous is another matter, because there are other factors at play,” Williams said. “Turbulence forecasts that pilots use to plan smooth flight routes are improving all the time, modern aircraft are better at handling turbulence, and passenger compliance with seatbelt advice may be improving. Whether the more turbulent atmosphere translates into more injuries remains to be seen.”
Ethan Coffel, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at Syracuse University, told Newsweek that there are other effects that climate change is having on flying.
“There are 3 primary effects [of climate change on flying]: a reduction in payload capacity for some flights because of rising temperatures, an increase in clear air turbulence on some flight routes, and changes in fuel consumption on some routes due to changes in upper level wind speeds,” Coffel said. “Climate change has influenced the strength of the high altitude winds over major flight routes (like the North Atlantic), and changes in these winds have increased the frequency of clear air turbulence (that is turbulence associated with just winds and not thunderstorms or mountains).”
Even if there is an increase in turbulence, this does not mean that flying is getting more dangerous. In fact, despite the recent uptick of turbulence incidents where people are getting injured, it remains fairly rare.
The number of flights reporting turbulence injuries is very small when set against the total of commercial flights worldwide, which reached nearly 39 million in 2019, before the COVID pandemic hit, according to Statista.
Todd Lane, the head of the school of geography, earth and atmospheric sciences and atmospheric science professor at the University of Melbourne, told Newsweek: “Air travel is inherently safe. Turbulence encounters are rare and injuries are even rarer. The trends in turbulence are relatively slow.”
Lane said that as new research into the increase in turbulence comes in, it will allow pilots to plan ahead of time.
“The improvements in our understanding of turbulence and techniques to predict turbulence are rapid. Pilots have ever increasing information at their disposal to detect and avoid turbulence,” Lane said. “With the immense improvements in weather prediction in recent years, and those that will occur in the near future, I anticipate that our ability to avoid and predict turbulence will improve quicker than any increase in turbulence in the atmosphere due to climate change. Thus, air travel will become safer in the future, despite projected changes in turbulence.”
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents some 300 airlines worldwide, introduced a tool in 2019 to help airlines avoid turbulence. Before this, airlines got their information from pilots and weather advisories which could be unreliable. But the Turbulence Aware tool is able to gather data from multiple airlines, and consolidates the information into a single database. It’s an example of how airlines have more tools today then they would have had years ago.
Newsweek asked IATA by email for comment on the issue.
So far, it is not clear whether any safety measures on flights will be updated on commercial flights, as turbulence potentially increases.
Williams said that any differences made to safety measures on flights are for policy makers to decide.
“However, what I will say is that—as a parent—I would never allow my child to sit unrestrained in my lap during a flight,” Williams said. “I recommend that passengers do what pilots do, and keep their seatbelts fastened at all times when seated.”
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