Research has made it clear: Earth’s warming, the result of the burning of fossil fuels, is increasing the risks of bumpy flights.
It has to do with ways warming in the atmosphere influences winds at varying altitudes.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean flight turbulence is becoming more common, despite publicized incidents in recent months involving injuries on flights from Texas to Germany and from Arizona to Hawaii. Airlines have taken measures to minimize or avoid bumpy air, including through improved forecasting of atmospheric turbulence.
Here is what to know about the science behind turbulence and the ways climate change is influencing air travel:
Is global warming causing more turbulence?
Yes, according to Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. A research paper he co-authored in 2019 found it to be the case on a busy aviation route over the North Atlantic.
Around the world, it has become clear that atmospheric dynamics have changed significantly since scientists first observed them via satellite data in the late 1970s, he said.
A property known as wind shear, the degree to which wind speeds vary at different altitudes, has increased by 15 percent since 1979, the research concluded.
What does that have to do with turbulence? Well, when wind shear is high, those differences in wind speeds create atmospheric disturbances much like rippling, if not raging, waves in a surging river.
“It certainly implies more turbulence,” Williams said.
Is turbulence affecting flights more often?
That is harder to determine from available data.
The Federal Aviation Administration tracks numbers of serious injuries from flight turbulence, defining them as any injury requiring a hospital stay of at least 48 hours. There is no clear trend in its data — annual figures have fluctuated from as many as 18 in 2011 to as few as five in 2013 and 2020.
Turbulence accounted for 37.6 percent of all accidents on large commercial airlines from 2009 through 2018, according to a 2021 National Transportation Safety Board report. The FAA reported 122 serious injuries as a result of turbulence over the same period.
Otherwise, incidents of turbulence on flights aren’t formally tracked.
Why are flights encountering turbulence unexpectedly?
The atmospheric dynamics linked to turbulence, and that climate change is making more common, mean that airplanes don’t need to be flying through a cloud or near a storm to experience bumpy air, Williams said. Flights increasingly experience what is known as “clear air turbulence.”
Lufthansa said its flight that was diverted to Dulles International Airport on Wednesday experienced clear air turbulence as it passed over Tennessee, according to CNN. Radar showed storm activity across the western part of the state at the time of the incident, however; a Lufthansa spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about the potential role of weather.
While airlines can forecast and route around storm-related turbulence risk, clear air turbulence is invisible to both radar and the naked eye. Researchers and the aviation industry are working to improve understanding and prediction of it.
The FAA says it is encouraging airlines to improve training and communication around turbulence risks.
How dangerous is turbulence?
Depending on the severity of turbulence, injuries can be significant — but they are underreported, Williams said, considering that anything short of a two-day hospital stay is not counted in FAA statistics. In a turbulence incident in December near Hawaii, authorities reported some three dozen people were injured, but only 20 of those were taken to hospitals.
That said, experts say that while severe turbulence is alarming, it is not likely to cause a crash.
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