Scared of flying? Climate change will make it worse

If rising sea levels and bleached coral reefs weren’t bad enough, climate change may also make for bumpier flights.

According to a paper published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, jet streams in both the northern and southern hemispheres are expected to strengthen at the cruising altitudes of aircraft as the globe warms.

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That means more wind shear at high altitudes as increases in carbon dioxide concentrations flood the atmosphere, says Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading in England.

The study focused on transatlantic flights, noting that “climate change may have important consequences for aviation, because the meteorological characteristics of the atmosphere influence airport operations, flight routes, journey times, and the safety and comfort of passengers and crew.”

“We’re particularly interested in severe turbulence, because that’s the kind of turbulence that’s strong enough to hospitalize people,” Williams told The Washington Post.

Williams said more severe turbulence may force flights to find new routes, which could increase flying time, use of fuel and airplane wear-and-tear.

There are three main types of turbulence: 

  • Convective turbulence is caused by thunderstorms formed as the sun heats the land and the warm moist air rises and cools into clouds. When the clouds can’t hold any more water, it rains, causing a downdraft of cold air and wind. 
  • Clear-air turbulence cannot be detected visually and is not associated with clouds. It occurs typically in the high atmosphere with variations of wind in jet streams — currents of air in the Earth’s atmosphere caused by the planet’s rotation and heating by the sun.
  • Mechanical or mountain turbulence happens when wind encounters tall obstructions, such as mountains, trees or buildings that disrupt its smooth flow. The disrupted air can form eddies on the other side of the obstruction that will jostle the plane.

Williams’ study focused on clear-air turbulence, which he said will increase “significantly” as the climate changes.

Williams said that better turbulence forecasts and mechanisms already on planes will help mitigate severe bumpiness.

“But even an increase in light turbulence can cause greater wear and tear on planes or force pilots to use extra fuel redirecting their flight paths to avoid rough patches,” The Post wrote.

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