Flight Turbulence Gets Worse With a Changing Climate

With greater variations in temperatures come greater storms – and, apparently, more tumultuous skies. Turbulence during air flight has always been very difficult to predict, but scientists are confident in at least one thing: It is going to get worse.

In fact, that is already happening, with more than one recent flight suffering serious repercussions of violent air turbulence. Death as a result of air turbulence has historically been rare, but not anymore – with the recent Singapore Airlines flight being the most recent example.

Singapore Airlines Sudden Drop Has a Tragic Outcome

A Singapore Airlines Airbus A350-900 on final approach into Changi Airport
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Mochammad Ray Kahn Ariga

Just after most of the plane’s passengers had finished breakfast, Singapore Flight SQ321 suddenly and violently dropped 178 feet in altitude in less than five seconds. Anyone not belted in was tossed into the air before slamming back down, resulting in dozens of injuries and even death.

As any frequent flyer knows, bumpy skies are not a remarkable thing. What is unusual is just how violent those lumpy skies have become. A recent study of air turbulence determined that moderate to severe (or greater) turbulence is encountered a staggering 68,000 times a year. What makes things more alarming is that more and more of these encounters are anticipated to creep into the ‘severe’ category.

Warming Trends Impact the Jet Stream

Sharp, telephoto close-up image of jet plane, aircraft with contrails cruising at 35,000 feet Tokyo to NY ground speed 480 knots
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Russ Heinl

The reason that scientists give for the expected increase to aircraft turbulence is twofold. The first reason relates to a warming planet, resulting in more aggressive collisions between cold air and warm air. The second reason, and the cause of the very violent Singapore Airlines encounter, is where these warm and cold air masses are meeting – in high-altitude jet streams.

Commercial airlines traditionally use the jet streams for calmer skies, but they are now ripe for something called “clear air Turbulence”. This form of air movement is difficult to forecast or even see, and it is anticipated to continue increasing as a result of climate change. The jet stream, it seems, is becoming a less stable place to fly.

There are better methods of anticipating these clear air turbulences, however. Interestingly, way that scientist are studying the changes to the jet stream is through birds. While they might not travel at the same altitude as the planes, high flying birds could act as meteorological sensors on the move. The movements of these birds help scientist better understand the ways that air currents are changing.

Air Travel Can Still Be Safe

A man is studying to be a pilot in a flight simulator. Close-up of male hands on the control panel of an aircraft.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Reshetnikov_art

The biggest thing for air travellers to know is that planes are not going to start falling out of the sky. According to Paul Williams, a Professor of Atmospheric Science in the UK, travellers should not be alarmed. “Aircraft are built to a very high specification, and they can withstand the worst turbulence they could encounter, even in the future,” Williams says. Typically, you might expect 10 minutes of turbulence on a transatlantic flight. “I think that in a few decades, this may increase to 20 minutes or a half an hour,” Williams predicts. “The seatbelt sign will be switched on much more, unfortunately for passengers”.

Keeping Yourself Safe

Woman fastening seat belt on a commercial airplane, close-up on buckle and hand.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / r.classen

It turns out that flight attendants face the biggest risk due to increased air turbulence. If passengers have their seat belts on, the risks of sudden choppy air are kept to a minimum. The cabin crew can only sometimes stay belted up, however, and hence the increased risk. The airline industry is taking the risks very seriously, with changes to flight rules anticipated. One expected change will be regarding the regulations allowing children on their parents lap. Experts say that the risk to the child is unacceptable, as well as the chances that the child could be thrown around the cabin, hurting others.

Clear Skies Ahead, Even With Troubled Air

Back side of traveler girl looking at the flying plane above the sea.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Kite_rin

For better chances of clear air, pick your flights based on early departures (when skies are statistically the calmest). Keep your seat belt on whenever possible, and ensure your belongings are stowed. These are well-known rules, becoming even more critical in air flights encountering unpredictable turbulence. Our planet might be changing, but safe air travel is still possible.

Richard Weninger

Author: Richard Weninger


Richard Weninger is a Freelance writer with an extensive background in broadcast journalism and travel writing. He is a published author of both guidebooks and fiction novels. Richard is also an outspoken advocate for environmental causes and animal rights, with a passion for hiking and exploring

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