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Warming planet may mean bumpier flights

A snapshot of a turbulence on a hypothetical winter day in a world with double the levels of pre-industrial carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
A snapshot of a turbulence on a hypothetical winter day in a world with double the levels of pre-industrial carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.Dr Paul Williams, University of Reading, UK

By Stephanie Pappas


Transatlantic airline passengers might expect to stay seated with their seatbelts securely fastened more often in the future, according to new research that finds climate change could lead to more airplane turbulence.

By the middle of the century, turbulence strength over the North Atlantic flight corridor could increase between 10 percent and 40 percent, and turbulence frequency could jump between 40 percent and 170 percent, according to the new study published online Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The increase could have major implications for the airline industry, as approximately 600 flights a day make the North Atlantic transit from Europe to North America and back.

The study researchers focused on clear-air turbulence, the sort of bumps that occur even in the absence of clouds or mountains (which can also give airplane passengers a rocky ride). 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. 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.

Clear-air turbulence is associated with major air currents called jet streams, which are expected to get stronger as the globe warms. Researchers Paul Williams of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom and Manoj Joshi of the University of East Anglia wanted to know how climate change might influence turbulence. [Infographic: Earth's Atmosphere Top to Bottom]

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 degrees North latitude, which passes through Canada and southern England, where 61 percent 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 and thus more emissions that could further fuel climate change.

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