Turbulent air travel over Atlantic due to climate change

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One of the world's busiest flight corridors is also going to be one of the bumpiest in the years to come due to shifts in the jet stream as a result of global warming. Commercial jets pump out some 700 million tons of CO2 a year-about two percent of global emissions.

A new study says that flights on transatlantic routes will start to shake apart by mid-century. The bumps could become stronger due to the intensification of conditions that lead to a type of turbulence called clear-air turbulence (to increase by between 40 per cent and 170 per cent), according to the study published online today in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The clear-air turbulence is mainly associated with jet streams and can occur in clear blue skies. "The pilot can't see it and the sensors onboard can't see it-that's why it's a particularly dangerous form of turbulence," said Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom and lead author of the new paper.


The jet stream is a gigantic fast-moving body of air that circulates several kilometres high. This acceleration makes the atmosphere more susceptible to the instability that creates turbulence.
limate models have shown that climate change will draw the jet stream over the North Atlantic even farther north, said Williams. He and his colleague, Manoj Joshi of the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, wanted to know what that would mean for clear-air turbulence.

"Our research suggests that we'll be seeing the ‘fasten seat belts' sign turned on more often in the decades ahead," said Williams.

A passenger can handle spilling of drinks but severe clear-air turbulence can injure or kill passengers, and damage planes. The flight crew are risk, more than passengers. The flight attendants aren't usually buckled in, they can get thrown around the cabin.

The air turbulence means the airlines may have to fly more detours in the future to avoid it, a waste of time and fuel that ups emissions. This could also mean higher ticket prices.

The authors estimate turbulence costs society about $150m each year. "The only ray of hope is if atmospheric scientists get better at predicting turbulence in advance, so that flights can be routed around it. Whether this is possible remains to be seen," Williams said.

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