Aircrafts Are Experiencing More Turbulence During Than Ever Before During Flights.

Aircrafts Are Experiencing More Turbulence During  Than Ever Before During Flights.
Aircrafts Are Experiencing More Turbulence During Than Ever Before During Flights.

We're investigating why

What exactly is turbulence?

From falling luggage to food flying everywhere and occasional hospital admissions, is there a cause for concern at high altitudes?

We've all been in a situation where we're flying smoothly and then suddenly, the seatbelt sign comes on, warning us of potential turbulence ahead.

Airbus A330-800
Turbulence has become a hot topic lately, thanks to social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram Reels, which flood our feeds with videos of flight mishaps. 

Turbulence has become a hot topic lately, thanks to social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram Reels, which flood our feeds with videos of flight mishaps. In March, a Lufthansa flight from Austin, Texas, to Frankfurt, Germany, had to make an emergency landing after turbulence caused chaos on board, with food and personal items scattered everywhere.

So, what exactly is turbulence, how safe is it, and is it happening more frequently, or are we just more aware of it now?

To get to the bottom of these questions, we interviewed Isabel Smith from the University of Reading's Meteorology Department, who uses advanced climate models to predict increases in atmospheric turbulence. She provides insights into turbulence, its safety, and its connection to climate change.

What exactly is turbulence?

Isabel explains, "Turbulence is the disordered movement of air brought about by the interaction of winds or the forced upward flow of air over mountains. Picture the atmosphere as a vast fluid with waves of air movement circulating worldwide. When the air becomes unstable, it breaks into swiftly swirling, chaotic patterns. Aircraft encountering turbulence experience shaking as they navigate through these rapid, swirling airflows."

Is turbulence safe?

Isabel responds, "While there is a potential for encountering severe turbulence, which can be risky, it's exceedingly rare, with less than one percent of the atmosphere containing severe turbulence. More commonly, you'll encounter light turbulence, which may jostle you around and spill a drink or two but isn't dangerous. The concern with some types of turbulence, like clear air turbulence, is that it can appear suddenly, potentially tossing you around in the plane. This is why the best advice is to keep your seatbelt fastened as much as possible."

Is turbulence becoming more frequent?

Isabel confirms, "Yes, turbulence is on the rise due to climate change. However, as an individual traveler, you're more likely to experience longer flight routes, increased delays, and extended waiting times at airports. Airlines typically plan routes that minimize turbulence. Avoiding turbulence often results in longer and more convoluted flight paths."

Can turbulence cause a plane to crash?

Isabel clarifies, "If a plane were to fly through an active thunderstorm, turbulence, along with other weather factors like downdrafts, heavy rainfall, and hail, could contribute to an incident. However, thunderstorms are typically well-predicted, and airlines would not knowingly fly through one. So, there's no need for worry; turbulence alone would not lead to a plane crash."

Is there a connection between climate change and increased turbulence?

Isabel explains, "Global warming involves the rapid heating of the troposphere, the layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth's surface. This warming is due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the troposphere that would otherwise be released into the stratosphere. As a result, the stratosphere cools while the troposphere warms, creating a significant vertical temperature contrast."

What does this mean for turbulence?

Isabel continues, "A stronger vertical temperature contrast leads to a more turbulent jet stream. As jet streams become stronger and more turbulent, the occurrence of clear-air turbulence (CAT) increases."

What measures are airlines taking to address this?

Isabel mentions, "CAT forecasts, similar to weather predictions for temperature and rainfall, are around 70 to 80 percent accurate. Airlines plan their routes to minimize turbulence as much as possible. However, this often results in longer flights, extended wait times, higher fuel consumption, and increased carbon emissions."

She goes on, "Studies have shown that, assuming no growth in the aviation industry and double the CO2 concentration as pre-industrial conditions, it would cost $2.2 million annually for the aviation sector to avoid CAT. These longer flight routes would also lead to an additional 70 million kilograms of CO2 emissions annually.

The aviation industry is actively researching ways to reduce its carbon footprint, with various ongoing studies. One approach could involve optimizing flight routes. Another study found that optimizing flight routes between December 2019 and February 2020 could have saved 6.7 million kilograms of CO2 emissions in a single season. However, it's worth noting that the most optimal flight route might also be the most turbulent."

"In conclusion," she remarks, "To mitigate CAT, the aviation industry may consider using these optimized routes and CAT forecasting tools to minimize encounters. Current onboard radar systems cannot detect CAT, but some studies suggest LIDAR could serve as a possible detection method. However, a study by Kauffmann from two decades ago deemed widespread LIDAR implementation in aircraft not cost-effective, though this information might be outdated."