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  • Allison Stalker

Climate Change to Increase Atmospheric Turbulence

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

A new study released in Nature Climate Change entitled “Intensification of winter transatlantic aviation turbulence in response to climate change” finds that climate change will increase the frequency and strength of atmospheric turbulence. According to the study performed by Paul D. Williams and Manoj M. Joshi, atmospheric turbulence causes most weather-related aircraft incidents.

This type of turbulence is not picked up by satellites and on-board radar and can make for a bumpy airplane ride. The study indicated that atmospheric turbulence will most likely double by the mid 2050’s and the average strength will increase by 10 to 40 percent.

The affect of climate change on this turbulence has never been studied. “When I looked through the literature, I was astonished to find that no one had done it before,” Williams said.

The study focused on vertical airflow linked to the atmospheric jet stream, located in the transatlantic flight corridor. Their climate models simulated the change in the jet stream due to increased carbon dioxide levels and how that will translate to increased turbulence. Even though the research focused on the jet stream, Williams and Joshi expect that turbulence increases will apply to almost all airline routes that contact the jet stream, which flows across the entire northern hemisphere.

The researchers estimated that carbon dioxide levels will double by 2050, in turn doubling the occurrence of atmospheric turbulence. This is a middle-ground protection. The year could be much further out if carbon dioxide levels are reduced by employing a number of green technologies. On the other hand, if carbon dioxide levels double more quickly, the increases in turbulence could come much sooner.

This process works as a feedback cycle. Aviation creates carbon dioxide emissions, accounting for around 2 to 3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. More carbon dioxide emissions leads to more turbulence. The increased turbulence caused by climate change resulting from these emissions may lengthen air flight times and fuel consumption. This of course would lead to increases in emissions and the cycle would continue.

“You could see it as the atmosphere getting its own back by taking revenge on planes and causing more trouble,” Williams says. “It’s absolutely poetic justice.”

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