Climate Change Means Bumpy Ride for Flyers

Published on 1 January 1970 by Raffick Marday

A new study has claimed that the effects of climate change will mean those taking a flight to go on holiday may be in for a bumpy ride as turbulence levels increase.

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Although modern aircraft designs have lessened the effects of air turbulence on most commercial flights, meaning that travellers enjoy a smooth and carefree journey in the vast majority of cases, rough flying conditions cost the air industry an estimated £97.8 million a year.

Turbulence is mainly caused by vertical airflow, which is the movement of air going straight up and down, often caused by cloud formations or thunderstorms.

However, another kind of disruption, called ‘clear-air turbulence’, is linked to atmospheric jet streams which are expected to strengthen with climate change. These effects are not visible to the naked eye and they can’t be seen on satellite images or by traditional radar systems either.

The study, by the University of Reading's National Centre for Atmospheric Science, used computer simulations of the North Atlantic jet stream to predict what might happen to the strong upper-atmospheric winds driven by temperature differences between cold Arctic and warm tropical air.

"Climate change is not just warming the Earth's surface, it is also changing the atmospheric winds 10 kilometres (six miles) high, where planes fly," said Dr Paul Williams, the co-author of the study.

"That is making the atmosphere more vulnerable to the instability that creates clear-air turbulence."

The scientists found that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – which they predicted may happen within the next 40 years – would cause turbulence to be between 10% and 40% stronger at normal commercial flight cruise altitudes.

"A stronger jet stream means the atmosphere is less stable, which creates more turbulence," Dr Williams explained.

"Turbulence strong enough to make walking difficult and to dislodge unsecured objects is likely to become twice as common in transatlantic airspace by the middle of this century."

Turbulence is not limited to flights: the currency market also experiences fluctuations on a regular basis. It could therefore be useful to load foreign currency onto a prepaid card when exchange rates are favourable.

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