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Climate change will increase the risk of severe turbulence on planes, research says

  • Researchers at the University of Reading in England analyzed supercomputer simulations of the future atmosphere, focusing on clear air turbulence.
  • For nervous fliers, the numbers contained within the research do not make for comfortable reading.
Guido Mieth | DigitalVision | Getty Images

Climate change is set to increase the amount of severe turbulence on planes by 2050 to 2080, according to a study.

Researchers at the University of Reading in England analyzed supercomputer simulations of the future atmosphere, focusing on clear air turbulence. As it is invisible, clear air turbulence is seen as being especially problematic.

For nervous fliers, the numbers contained within the research do not make for comfortable reading.

The study projects that severe turbulence at a typical cruising altitude of 39,000 feet is set to rise by roughly 181 percent over the North Atlantic; 161 percent over Europe; 113 percent over North America; 92 percent over the North Pacific; and 64 percent over Asia.

Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) describes severe turbulence as being characterized by large and abrupt changes in altitude or attitude (relating to an aircraft's orientation), as well as "large variation in indicated airspeed." During severe turbulence, an aircraft "may be temporarily out of control," the CASA adds.

"While turbulence does not usually pose a major danger to flights, it is responsible for hundreds of passenger injuries every year," Luke Storer, a PhD researcher who worked on the study, said. "It is also by far the most common cause of serious injuries to flight attendants."

The study also made the first turbulence projections for the Southern Hemisphere and tropical regions. Severe turbulence was projected to increase by around 62 percent over South America; 53 percent over Australia; and 51 percent over Africa.

The projected turbulence increases were seen as being a result of global temperature changes strengthening wind instabilities at high altitudes in the jet streams. This, in turn, was resulting in pockets of rough air becoming stronger and more common.

"Air turbulence is increasing across the globe, in all seasons, and at multiple cruising altitudes," Paul Williams, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading, said in a statement Wednesday.

"This problem is only going to worsen as the climate continues to change," Williams, who led the research, added. The study, he said, highlighted the need to develop better turbulence forecasts that could cut the risk of injuries to passengers and reduce the cost of turbulence to airlines.