Climate Change Is Making Airplane Turbulence More Common and Severe, Scientists Say

Following turbulence on a flight last week that led to one death and dozens of injuries, researchers, flight attendants and transportation officials alike are warning about links between warmer air and turbulence

A photograph down the aisle of an airplane, from behind passengers
From 1979 to 2020, severe turbulence in some locations increased by as much as 55 percent, according to a 2023 study. Dawid Cedler via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

Passengers aboard a Singapore Airlines flight last week hit severe turbulence over the Indian Ocean—and in the span of just one second, the plane dropped by 178 feet. One passenger, a 73-year-old man, died, and dozens of other people were injured. The plane, which was traveling from London to Singapore, made an emergency landing in Bangkok, and news of the incident has placed airplane turbulence—and the science behind it—back into national and international conversations.

And for good reason: Research suggests air turbulence has already become more common, and it is projected to grow even more frequent and severe because of climate change. Most of these in-flight disturbances are harmless, so long as safety procedures are adhered to. But more intense instances of turbulence could create more stressful or dangerous flight experiences for passengers and flight attendants alike.

“It is not that we’ll have to stop flying, or planes will start falling out of the sky,” Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading who has researched air turbulence, tells Nature News’ Carissa Wong. “I’m just saying that for every ten minutes you’ve spent in severe turbulence in the past, it could be 20 or 30 minutes in the future.”

Williams and others published a study in 2019, suggesting higher atmospheric temperatures, a result of global warming, have contributed significantly to more turbulence. Severe incidents of airplane turbulence increased by 55 percent from 1979 to 2020, per a study last year. And wind shear—the sudden change in wind strength or direction, over a short distance—at airplane cruising altitudes has increased by 15 percent since 1979, a trend expected to further increase by between 17 percent and 29 percent by the end of the century.

In the atmosphere, warmer air can hold more water vapor, giving rise to even warmer temperatures in turn. This can create differences in air temperature, the researchers write, making wind shear more common. Their findings suggest that turbulence strong enough to pose a risk of injury could become two or three times more likely over the North Atlantic between 2050 and 2080.

“It’s affecting the wind patterns, and one of those impacts that is being affected are jet streams,” Todd Lane, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Melbourne, tells the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Jo Lauder. “Those jet streams that are at aircraft flight levels are projected to intensify, which means that those regions will become more turbulent.”

A map showing how the chance of experiencing clear-air turbulence between 1979 and 2020 has increased, with higher chances in darker red.
A map showing how the chance of experiencing moderate or greater clear-air turbulence between 1979 and 2020 has increased, with higher chances in darker red. Prosser et al., Geophysical Research Letters, 2023

Some turbulence is caused by thunderstorms, which are also projected to worsen with climate change. But other turbulence is not linked to storms, making it more difficult for pilots to predict. This clear-air turbulence, also called “invisible” turbulence, is also projected to increase—under some climate change scenarios, it could be four times more common by 2050 compared to historic levels.

Turbulence occurs all across the globe and is felt most often near mountain ranges and the edges of jet streams. The world’s three most turbulent flight paths are: Santiago, Chile, to Santa Cruz, Bolivia; Almaty, Kazakhstan, to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; and Lanzhou, China, to Chengdu, China.

But American travelers on domestic flights aren’t exempt from the trend. U.S. pilots report 65,000 incidents of at least moderate turbulence and 5,500 incidents of severe or greater turbulence each year.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a union representing flight attendants, called turbulence a “serious workplace safety issue” last week, per the Washington Post’s Hannah Sampson.

A map of global clear-air turbulence, as of Friday, May 31, 2024.
A map of global turbulence, as of Friday, May 31, 2024. Blue represents lighter turbulence; red is more severe. Turbli

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” program Sunday that turbulence is occurring more frequently, and climate change is a significant factor that will “affect American travelers, whether here or abroad.”

“Our climate is evolving,” Buttigieg said, according to CNBC’s Sean Conlon. “Our policies and our technology and our infrastructure have to evolve accordingly, too.”

Technologies for detecting turbulence are getting better, and new innovations are on the way. Pilots are currently able to use turbulence forecasts, which indicate the smoothest routes to take. And turbulence caused by stormy weather is often identified by weather centers, satellites and on-ground sensors and radars.

Clear-air turbulence, however, is still difficult to reliably predict. But developments in lidar technologies, though still expensive and too cumbersome to put into practice, have shown promise.

“I’ve seen some experimental flights, and you can indeed see clear-air turbulence 20 miles, for example, ahead of the aircraft,” Williams tells Nature News.

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