John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Future fliers can expect more brushes with turbulence strong enough to hurl unbuckled people around the cabin, according to new research.
Folks sickened by the Trump administration’s dismantling of U.S. climate policy might want to get used to the feeling. As the world continues to warm, airlines likely will experience a drastic rise in turbulence—not just the kind that has you reaching for the barf bag, but the type that can send passengers to the hospital for bruising injuries, says Paul Williams at the U.K.’s University of Reading.
Fliers of the future can expect as much as three times the frequency of in-air jerkiness “strong enough to catapult unbuckled passengers and crew around the aircraft cabin,” according to Williams’ new research. Aside from the jump in the most powerful clear-air turbulence that makes airplanes rise and drop like tubular yo-yos, Williams’s study anticipates a 75 percent surge in light-to-moderate turbulence and a 127 percent rise in moderate-to-severe turbulence.
That lurching reality could arrive within 50 years, when levels of atmospheric CO2 are predicted to double. A fiercer jet stream caused by unequal, human-driven heating throughout the world will lead to super-herky-jerky skies, says Williams. At cruising altitudes of 30,000 to 40,000 feet, low-latitude tropical regions are warming more than high-latitude Arctic regions, he adds. “This effect is increasing the North-South temperature difference across the North Atlantic, which is what drives the jet stream, and the jet stream is speeding up in response. A stronger jet stream means more turbulence.”
Williams’s research focuses specifically on clear-air turbulence (the sort that occurs without clouds and storms) and a region within the North Atlantic flight corridor, which he IDs as the “busiest oceanic airspace in the world.” But the predicted upswing could well affect a much larger area. “I would expect all mid-latitude regions in the Northern Hemisphere to be affected equally, so this would include trans-Eurasian and trans-Pacific flights in addition to trans-Atlantic ones,” he tells CityLab.
This news will not be a delight to airline companies, either. In addition to being a primary reason why some people avoid flying, turbulence is a wellspring of health and economic woes. Turbulence is the top cause of physical harm on flights, with one conservative estimate putting it behind 687 minor injuries to crew members and 120 ones to passengers in the U.S. each year (and 38 and 17 serious injuries to each). One study indicates it dings airliners to the tune of $200 million annually due to liability lawsuits, inspections, lost time, and repairs for small issues as well as major ones, like when strong turbulence tears out an engine and a 19-foot chunk of wing from the plane you’re flying in.
You’re probably more likely to slam your noggin on the cabin ceiling the winter. “The North Atlantic jet stream is strongest in winter, because the Arctic region cools down during the winter months, which increases the North-South temperature difference that drives the jet stream,” Williams says. “So there is more trans-Atlantic clear-air turbulence in winter, and therefore we tend to see more passenger and flight-attendant injuries in the winter months.”
Passengers who fly from regional airports that typically serve smaller planes might have it worse, too. “The general rule for aircraft turbulence is that the smaller the plane, the stronger the aircraft bumpiness in turbulence,” Williams says. “So when a large plane like a Boeing 787 or Airbus A380 experiences only light or moderate bumpiness, a medium-sized plane like a Boeing 737 flying through the same turbulence patch might experience severe bumpiness.” For small general aviation aircraft, he adds, turbulence causes about 40 deaths every year.