Climate change could be creating more turbulence on flights, research shows

BySpencer Christian KGO logo
Tuesday, June 6, 2023
Research shows climate change could trigger a rougher flight
Recent studies out of the U.K. are suggesting that global climate change could be making turbulence on flights more frequent and possibly more severe.

SAN FRANCISCO -- If you've flown at all, chances are you've experienced turbulence. But recent studies out of the U.K. are suggesting that global climate change could be making those bumps more frequent and possibly more severe. Using satellite data, researchers from the University of Reading estimated that a specific kind of turbulence has increased by some 15% in areas along the earth's jet stream. The question now - what's ahead for pilots and passengers?

"I believe that the studies are valid, but we need to do more experiments to verify it, says Prof. Fred Barez, Ph.D., department chair for aviation, and energy technology at San Jose State University.

Researchers at San Jose State are working with the kind of computer modeling that could eventually help better describe the phenomenon. But using a table top wind-tunnel and a heating pad, professor Barez gave us a simplified look at what happens when changes in temperatures create wind shear.

"So what we're seeing here, in this case, it's the aircraft itself that's developing the shear. But turbulence is typically caused when you have two different air masses next to each other with different velocities, different directions, or both," he explains.

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And that can trigger what's known as clear air turbulence, Unpredictable stretches of bumpy air at higher altitudes, not caused by storms. Fellow San Jose State instructor Captain Scott Miller is also a working airline pilot with first-hand experience.

"Those are the routes that I tend to fly, the West Coast to Hawaii. And in the four years, I've been doing that flying I've seen the amount of clear air turbulence increase," says Capt. Miller.

He's careful to point out that variations in turbulence can be traceable to a variety of factors, but rising temperatures could be in the mix.

"That's where global warming could possibly figure into this. As the ground heats and radiates that air that hot air up into the atmosphere, those moving air currents develop the shear and could end up causing the turbulence to increase and be of greater intensity," he says.

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Capt. Miller says many pilots now employ turbulence tracking software to help pinpoint and share the altitudes and locations of clear-air and other kinds of turbulence between flight crews.

But you may want to buckle in for some long-term projections. Researchers in the U.K. studies believe the frequency of turbulence along North American flight routes could triple in the upcoming decades depending on climate change.

Back in the lab, Professor Barez says confirming the data is step one. But if an increase turbulence turns into a new reality for pilots and passengers, predicting its behavior could be critical.

"We can do better predictions of what's going to be happening. The data is helpful, but you really need to analyze it carefully to be able to come up with prediction models," he believes.

Models that could someday help smooth out the challenges brought by climate change.

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