More turbulent flights in the future?

Wednesday 10th Apr 2013 by theWeather Club

If you have a fear for flying then you may wish to look away now as a recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, found that climate change could lead to more airplane turbulence in the future. The study highlighted that by the middle of this century, turbulence strength over the North Atlantic flight corridor could increase between 10 and 40%, and turbulence frequency could rise by as much as 170%.

The research, completed by Paul Williams, University of Reading, and Manoj Joshi, University of East Anglia, looked at how climate change might influence clear-air turbulence, which can occur even in the absence of clouds or mountains. Clear-air turbulence occurs when masses of air moving at different speeds collide in the atmosphere, making it invisible to the naked eye and nearly impossible to detect using radar or satellite. Clear-air turbulence is associated with major air currents called jet streams, which are expected to get stronger as the globe warms.

Airplanes spend an estimated 3 percent of their flight time at cruising altitude dealing with clear-air turbulence, and 1 percent of cruising time in clear-air turbulence of moderate intensity or more. The scientists used computer models to simulate a world where carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reaches twice pre-industrial levels. Ice core studies peg these pre-industrial levels at about 278 parts per million. Currently, there are about 396 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to measurements taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.

Focusing on the turbulence-heavy months of December, January and February on the North Atlantic Flight corridor, the researchers found a shift toward more and stronger turbulence, particularly above 50°N latitude where 61% of winter flights fly.

"We conclude that climate change will lead to bumpier transatlantic flights by the middle of this century, assuming the same flight tracks are used," the researchers wrote. As a result, they wrote, flights may have to take more circuitous routes, resulting in longer flight times, more fuel use.