by Simon Capstick-Dale

Global warming threat to air travel

Hold on, we're in for a bumpy ride!

Scientists warn that global warming is disturbing air currents at altitudes maintained by commercial airlines, increasing the occurrence of on-flight turbulence.
Air turbulence

Research by climate scientists suggests that flights will become bumpier as global warming destabilises air currents at altitudes maintained by commercial airliners.

Atmospheric turbulence injures hundreds of airline passengers each year, sometimes fatally, damaging aircraft and costing the industry millions.

Climate change is not limited to the warming of the Earth's surface but also involves changing the atmospheric winds high in the air where planes fly, which makes the atmosphere more vulnerable to the instability that creates clear-air turbulence.

Turbulence is mainly caused by vertical airflow; up-draughts and down-draughts near clouds and thunderstorms.

Clear-air turbulence, which is not visible to the naked eye and cannot be picked up by satellite or traditional radar, is linked to atmospheric jet streams, which are projected to strengthen with climate change.

The jet stream affects traffic in the aviation corridor between Europe and North America – one of the world's busiest with about 300 eastbound and 300 westbound flights per day.

Researchers found that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from pre-industrial levels, predicted within 40 years, would cause turbulence to be 10 % to 40% more forceful at typical cruise altitudes.

In order to make flying safer, flight paths may need to become more convoluted to avoid patches of turbulence that are stronger and more frequent.

However this will increase journey times and fuel consumption and emissions will increase. Ironically, aviation is partly responsible for changing the climate in the first place.

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