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Warming Planet Means Bumpier Flights

Climate models and turbulence algorithms forecast that, by mid-century, clear-air turbulence will be more violent and transatlantic flights will hit it twice as often. Christopher Intagliata reports

Commercial jets pump out some 700 million tons of CO2 a year—about two percent of global emissions. That jet exhaust helps warm the planet, especially in the Arctic. Which is especially unfortunate for future fliers. Because climate change may stir up more turbulence over the North Atlantic, causing bumpier flights there. That's according to a study in the journal Nature Climate Change. [Paul D. Williams and Manoj M. Joshi, Intensification of winter transatlantic aviation turbulence in response to climate change]

Researchers used climate simulations to fast-forward to the year 2050. They fed that future climate data to 21 turbulence-predicting algorithms, focusing on a type called "clear air turbulence," which literally comes out of the blue—pilots can't spot it, and neither can satellites or radar. The models forecast that by mid-century, clear-air turbulence will be more violent, and transatlantic flights will hit it twice as often, especially during the winter.

Beyond spilling drinks, severe clear-air turbulence can injure or kill passengers, and damage planes, too—it once ripped an engine off a DC-8. The researchers say airlines may have to fly more detours in the future to avoid it, a waste of time and fuel that ups emissions. Which could mean higher ticket prices, and even less friendly skies.

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

[Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.]

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