Airplane passengers are in for an increasingly bumpy ride according to a study released Friday in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences. Climate change is altering the jet stream, making severe turbulence more likely. The study builds on earlier work which found that climate change would lead to bumpier airplane rides. What makes the new research unique is that it quantifies how much different kinds of turbulence will increase—59 percent in the case of light turbulence, a 94 percent increase in moderate turbulence, and 149 percent increase in severe turbulence.
For the one in four Americans who are afraid of flying, any jostling could be considered severe. But like an earthquake, turbulence is rated on a scale. One is light—gentle enough so passengers may not notice it—three is moderate, or enough to jostle a drink, five is severe, and seven is extreme.
“Anything above five is by definition stronger than gravity,” says study author Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. “What that means is that anything that’s not strapped in will potentially be projected around inside the plane. That would include passengers.”
Shake, Rattle, But No Rolls
Turbulence happens when an air mass moving at one speed meets another air mass moving at a different speed. The meeting causes a sudden shift in airflow, leading air to move chaotically. It’s a bit like trying to walk down the street on a particularly windy day, and being buffeted about in multiple directions. So, a plane moving into turbulent air may have its left wing hit by an upward gust causing the plane to bank right. Similarly, if both wings are suddenly hit by a downward gust, the whole plane might drop a bit, which isn’t great for anyone inside.
Last October, an Air New Zealand flight from Ho Chi Minh to Auckland encountered turbulence so severe it was forced to turn around after two crew members suffered critical injuries. That same year, a JetBlue flight from Boston to Sacramento was forced to make an unplanned landing after it hit a patch of turbulence that sent 22 passengers and 2 crew members to the hospital. In 2015 an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Shanghai experienced turbulence that led to the injuries of 21 people. The plane made an emergency landing in Calgary, Alberta. And in 2014 a United Airlines flight from Denver to Billings, Montana hit turbulence so severe that five people went into the hospital.
Read more at Climate Change Could Make Severe Turbulence Even Worse