Last updated December 4, 2017 at 4:52 pm
Hate flying? Prepare to hate it even more, according to new research.
There’s a lot of things to dislike about flying – cramped seats, disappointing food, and the inevitable cold you catch from someone else.
But one of the most hated things, turbulence, is going to get much worse.
Using climate simulations, researchers in the UK have modelled clear air turbulence across the globe into the second half of this century and found strong increases in turbulence worldwide, especially in the mid-latitudes where most flights are routed. Worryingly, severe turbulence is expected to increase the most.
According to the study, the first to make global projections of in-flight turbulence, climate change will affect the atmospheric characteristics which lead to turbulence. This will result in severe turbulence at a typical cruising altitude of 39,000 feet becoming up to two or three times as common throughout the year over the North Atlantic (180 percent more common), Europe (160 percent more common), North America (110 percent more common), the North Pacific (90 percent more common), and Asia (60 percent more common).
Australia doesn’t escape the unpleasantness, with severe turbulence expected to become 50 percent more common.
“Air turbulence is increasing across the globe, in all seasons and at multiple cruising altitudes,” said Paul Williams from the University of Reading, who led the study. “This problem is only going to worsen as the climate continues to change.”
Clear air turbulence can have serious consequences beyond the discomfort of a shuddering plane. Earlier this week three people were injured in Indonesia when their flight hit severe turbulence, while 10 were injured in the US in August. By 2050, the study predicts worldwide injuries caused by clear air turbulence will have tripled, in line with the increased amount of turbulence.
“While turbulence does not usually pose a major danger to flights, it is responsible for hundreds of passenger injuries every year,” said Luke Storer from the University of Reading and co-author of the new study. “It is also by far the most common cause of serious injuries to flight attendants. Turbulence is thought to cost United States air carriers up to $200 million annually.”
Clear air turbulence is dangerous not only due to the violent movements of the plane, but also because it usually strikes without warning as it is invisible to the eye and most sensors. To give pilots and passengers advanced knowledge, Boeing is testing a new laser-based system which is hoped to be able to detect clear air turbulence at least 15 kilometres away. At cruising speeds this would give around 1 minute warning to pilots to take avoiding action or warn passengers and cabin crew to strap in. The system uses LIDAR (light detection and ranging), which sends out pulses of light from the aircraft. These pulses reflect off dust and other particles back to the plane to give measurements of wind speeds, alerting the system of any abnormal changes in wind speed ahead of the aircraft.
These detection and warning systems will become more important in aircraft in the future, according to the new findings. Indeed, the authors point out that aircraft which will be flying in the last half of this century are already on the drawing board at manufacturers such as Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier, and that it would make sense for these new designs to take into account the expected increase in turbulence.
With detection systems and advanced airframes better suited to riding the bumps still some years away, the results also reveal the increasingly urgent need to improve clear air turbulence forecasts. While the current forecasts improve the safety and comfort of air travel, they are still prone to false positives and missed events. “Our study highlights the need to develop improved turbulence forecasts, which could reduce the risk of injuries to passengers and lower the cost of turbulence to airlines,” said Williams.
The study was published as Storer, L. N et al Global response of clear-air turbulence to climate change. Geophysical Research Letters
Turbulence isn’t the only challenge facing future long-haul flying. Read more about what to expect in the future In for the long-haul: the challenge to fly non-stop from Australia to anywhere in the world