As if flying in an airplane wasn't stressful enough—the cramped legroom, the bad food, and of course the travel restrictions—climate change is about to make it worse. If we keep pumping out carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, severe aircraft turbulence, which knocks unbuckled passen
gers around and can sometimes end in hospitalization, will increase.
By the time we've doubled carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere from what they were before the Industrial Revolution, severe turbulence will be worse by 149 percent compared to where it was in the 1850s, says a new study in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.
This paper marks the first time the effects of climate change on air turbulence have been investigated, University of Reading atmospheric scientist and author Paul Williams told me. "Severe turbulence is a rare phenomenon but it does injure people," he said. For passengers who go through it, it can be very freaky even if it causes no injuries.
Currently, if we don't reduce our emissions, the CO2 will be doubled (compared to what it was in the Industrial Revolution) by the 2050s or 2060s. At that point, light turbulence will have increased by 59 percent, moderate by 94 percent, and severe by 149 percent.
The researchers got their numbers through a modeling study performed on a supercomputer. Looking at turbulence over the Atlantic Ocean, the busiest oceanic corridor for air traffic, they cranked up the CO2 levels and analyzed effects on the jetstream (which impacts much more than just planes, and drives weather patterns too).
"The CO2 warms up the bottom part of the atmosphere where we live—that's global warming," he said. "But actually, the CO2 is changing the temperatures all the way up to 40,000 feet as well. Those temperature changes are not uniform."
The patterns and pockets that develop will make for a disordered and "stronger" jetstream, Williams explained, which will result in more turbulence. And the jetstream doesn't just affect flights over the Atlantic: it goes around the world.
"There are 60,000 planes in the US encountering moderate turbulence every year, and 5,000 encountering severe turbulence," Williams said. Hundreds of flight attendants and passengers get injured because of turbulence each year. The risk is even worse for small planes, he added. "If there's two or three times as much turbulence, then you'd expect two or three times the number of injuries."
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