Increasing Turbulence in Flights: What to Expect

By Ivan PetrenkoJun 14, 2024 12:30 PMNews
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Dense cloud formations seen from an airplane
Clear-air turbulence is often invisible to pilots. Source: unsplash

Turbulence during flights is becoming more frequent and severe, with clear-air turbulence (CAT) posing the greatest danger, says Captain Pavlin Yordanov, commander of an Airbus A320 at Bulgaria Air. Climate change and rising CO2 emissions are contributing to these unpredictable and extreme anomalies.

Recent incidents have sparked renewed discussion about the changing nature of turbulence. Over five days, two severe turbulence events injured multiple passengers on Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines flights. The latter resulted in a fatality and significant injuries, raising concerns about the aviation industry's preparedness for such occurrences.

Experts attribute the increase in turbulence to shifts in global weather patterns. Clear-air turbulence, which occurs in cloudless regions, is particularly problematic as it cannot be detected by pilots or weather instruments. This phenomenon results from rapidly moving air currents that create sudden and violent air disruptions.

Research from the University of Reading highlights a significant rise in CAT incidents, with their duration increasing by 55% between 1979 and 2020. The study suggests that this trend is linked to climate change. As the Earth's atmosphere warms, air masses collide more violently, causing more frequent and intense turbulence. This increase in atmospheric turbulence is a direct result of the heated air rising and interacting with cooler air streams at higher altitudes.

Furthermore, global warming is expected to lead to more frequent and severe storms, contributing to in-flight instability. The warming rate is currently four times faster than it was between 1960 and 2000, indicating that turbulence incidents will likely continue to rise.

Climatologist Professor Georgi Rachev emphasizes the need for more data to better predict and manage these occurrences. He advocates for the development of tools to detect thermal air columns and associated downdrafts, which are responsible for sudden drops in altitude. This capability would enhance pilot awareness and passenger safety.

As climate change progresses, both the aviation industry and passengers must adapt to increasingly turbulent skies. Enhanced monitoring and predictive technologies will be crucial in mitigating the risks associated with these atmospheric changes.

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