The seat-belt sign is on: Viral videos and climate change boost concerns about turbulence

Climate change could be making turbulence worse.

Climate change may be causing turbulence to worsen. It is more evident on social media.

Social media has become a staple for videos of flights roiled by turbulence. Videos of screaming people, and cabins littered with debris regularly receive thousands of views and even millions.

According to Google Trends, the video of a Hawaiian Airlines flight that was turbulent and in which 20 passengers were hospitalized, went viral in December 2022. This sparked a significant spike in interest in turbulence.

It is not clear if these videos show an increase in turbulence.

Gary Baumgardner is a commercial airline pilot and TikTok video maker. Everyone can share videos around the globe. Turbulence is nothing new.

Scientists have been warning for years that climate changes could lead to more severe turbulence in the future, and certain studies have already noted an increase in flight disruptions.

A study conducted by Korean scientists found that clear-air turbulence (which occurs without warning) has been trending upwards in areas such as East Asia from 1979 to 2019. A 2022 study found that global warming is causing a meridional temperature gradient (from north to south), which affects wind shear, and turbulence in Eurasia. This trend will continue to increase until 2100.

Paul Williams has studied airplane turbulence at the University of Reading, England, for more than 20 years. His research shows that clear air turbulence may double between 2050-2080. The impact will be felt along many busy flight routes, including those over the North Atlantic.

Williams stated that “we can confidently state that climate change increases the amount of clear air turbulence” in the atmosphere.

How can climate change cause turbulence in airplanes? Williams stated that global emissions increase atmospheric temperatures. Earth warms more quickly in tropical areas than in polar ones. The temperature difference between north and south increases the global wind shear. This is the change in wind speed or direction as a function of height.

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Wind shear contributes significantly to turbulence in clear air. Since 1979, when satellites first began to observe wind shear, the global wind shear has risen by 15%. This trend will continue, Williams stated, intensifying clear air turbulence in coming decades.

Andres McNerney is a commercial airline captain with many years of experience. He said that he’s not noticed any significant increase in turbulence during his flights. Baumgardner said that clear-air turbulent air is still uncommon.

Turbulence is a minor concern when it comes to airplane crashes but is a problem for airline staff. According to the National Transportation Safety Board , 79% of serious injuries from air turbulence are caused by flight attendants. Turbulence caused serious injuries to 30 passengers and 116 members of the crew between 2009-2021.

Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants – CWA, has noticed an increase in turbulence.

She said, “Skies are definitely more turbulent now than they were during my 26 years of service.” Flight attendants are at serious risk as we see more and more severe turbulence.

Ignacio Gallego Marcos, an expert in turbulence modelling and founder of Turbli, a tool online that lets passengers track flight turbulence, believes the effects of climate changes on airplane turbulence are simply too slow to be observed over short periods of time.

Gallego-Marcos stated that “many of these studies observe the flight turbulence on a scale of decades.” “In a year or so, [pilots] may not be able observe a pattern — you’ll need years of data in order to do that.”

According to Stephen Bennett of The Demex Group’s climate insurance company, several technologies are available to the aviation industry to adapt to this change in clear-air turbulent weather, which cannot be detected by standard weather radar.

He said that “we will see advances in technology aboard aircraft to detect clear-air turbulent air and research to help forecast areas of turbulence.”

Tom Costello contributed, as did Jay Blackman, Andy Weir, and Kailanie Koenig.

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