A bumpy ride: Airline turbulence getting worse as climate warms

Climate change is increasing aviation turbulence, and some major flight routes have already suffered a 55% increase in the duration of severe turbulence over the past four decades, analysis by the University of Reading shows.

The study, published in Geophysical Research Letters shows increases in clear-air turbulence, which is invisible but hazardous to aircraft, are consistent with the effects of climate change.

University of Reading researcher Mark Prosser says turbulence makes flights bumpy and unpleasant, with costly and occasionally dangerous effects. 

“Every additional minute spent travelling through turbulence increases wear-and-tear on the aircraft, as well as the risk of injuries to passengers and flight attendants,” he says.

Warmer air due to climate change is increasing windshear in the jet streams, leading to longer durations of severe turbulence in the North Atlantic and worldwide.

The paper found at a typical point over the North Atlantic – one of the world’s busiest flight routes – the total annual duration of severe turbulence increased by 55% from 17.7 hours in 1979 to 27.4 hours in 2020. Moderate turbulence also increased by 37%, and light turbulence increased by 17% over the same time period. 

Other busy flight routes over Europe, the Middle East and South Atlantic also saw significant increases in turbulence.

Professor Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading and co-author says, “following a decade of research showing that climate change will increase clear-air turbulence in the future, we now have evidence suggesting that the increase has already begun.” 

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