Climate change 'doubles turbulence'

Boeing 777 takes off from Gatwick Airport. Photo: PA

The aviation industry has long been accused of contributing to climate change. Now, in a new study, scientists have found that climate change will affect aviation - by increasing air turbulence and causing flights to get bumpier.

In the first study to examine the future of aviation turbulence, Dr Paul Williams from the University of Reading, together with Dr Manoj Joshi from the University of East Anglia, analysed supercomputer simulations of the atmospheric jet stream over the North Atlantic Ocean.

The study found that, by the middle of this century, the chances of encountering significant turbulence will increase by between 40% and 170%, with the most likely outcome being a doubling of the airspace containing significant turbulence at any time. The average strength of turbulence will also increase, by between 10% and 40%.

Dr Williams said: "Most air passengers will have experienced the uncomfortable feeling of mid-flight air turbulence. Our research suggests that we'll be seeing the 'fasten seatbelts' sign turned on more often in the decades ahead.

"Air turbulence does more than just interrupt the service of in-flight drinks. It injures hundreds of passengers and aircrew every year - sometimes fatally. It also causes delays and damages planes. The total cost to society is about £100 million (US$150 million) each year.

"Any increase in turbulence would make flying more uncomfortable and increase the risk to passengers and crew. Re-routing flights to avoid stronger patches of turbulence could increase fuel consumption and emissions of atmospheric pollutants, make delays at airports more common, and ultimately push up ticket prices."

Dr Joshi said: "Our research focused on clear-air turbulence in winter. This is especially problematic to airliners, because clear-air turbulence is invisible to pilots and satellites, and winter is when it peaks."

Dr Williams added: "Aviation is partly responsible for changing the climate in the first place. It is ironic that the climate looks set to exact its revenge by creating a more turbulent atmosphere for flying."

The study, 'Intensification of winter transatlantic aviation turbulence in response to climate change', was published yesterday in the journal Nature Climate Change.