A report released yesterday indicates that airline passengers may encounter bumpier rides in the future as a result of climate change.
The report, published in Nature Climate Change, compared computer models of historical, present day and predicted changes in the makeup of the troposphere as a result of an increase in the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere.
The study seems to indicate that, particularly around the jet stream, planes travelling just under the tropopause may encounter more clear air turbulence in the future.
Clear air turbulence or CAT as it is often referred to, occurs when bodies of air in the atmosphere moving at different speeds meet each other with the speed differential along the border between the two creates vortices. It’s impossible to detect by eye only and pilots often know only because of data shared by other aircraft having recently passed through the sector. Other causes are different densities of air meeting which, whilst also having different speeds, can also mean a need for a change in settings from the pilot to cope with flying into less dense or denser air. Less dense air can cause a plane to lose altitude as well as being buffeted by the change in winds whilst denser air can slow the plane and lead to a less smooth ride or in extreme cases a stall.
In the study, scientists calculated that not only may the intensity and frequency of the ‘air pockets’ increase but the area over which they may be felt may also increase. Indications from data collected suggest that the area where they might be experienced may more than double and the strength of the effect increase by up to 40%.
As well as discomfort for passengers, this is also likely to have other effects including increasing the amount of fuel used by planes that may have to change altitude or bearings to avoid the turbulence and these increased costs are likely to be passed on to passengers in the form of increased fares.
There are some potential positives too for a plane safely enclosed within the jet stream can expect to get a boost in reduced flight times through a stronger tail wind although this may be cancelled out when flying into the head wind on the return journey!
For now, if you see the fasten seatbelts sign light up mid-flight, prepare for a bumpy time!