Climate change set to make flights bumpier

Atmospheric turbulence is responsible for  injuring hundreds of airline passengers each year, sometimes fatally, damaging aircraft and costing the industry an estimated $150 million. However this figure is set to rise as climate scientists warned on Monday that flights will become bumpier as global warming destabilizes air currents at altitudes used by commercial airliners,.

 “Climate change is not just warming the Earth’s surface, it is also changing the atmospheric winds 10 km high where planes fly,” said study co-author Paul Williams of the University of Reading in England. “That is making the atmosphere more vulnerable to the instability that creates clear-air turbulence. Our research suggests that we’ll be seeing the ‘fasten seat belts’ sign turned on more often in the decades ahead.”

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, said planes already spent about 1 percent of their time in the skies in strong clear-air turbulence. This kind of turbulence occurs where air at one altitude is traveling faster than the air immediately below, leading to atmospheric instabilities.

The study found that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from pre-industrial levels, predicted within 40 years, would cause turbulence to become up to 40 percent more forceful at typical cruising altitudes.

The study authors used simulations of the North Atlantic jet stream, which is driven by temperature differences between colliding Arctic and tropical air. 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.

 “Turbulence strong enough to make walking difficult and to dislodge unsecured objects is likely to become twice as common in trans-Atlantic airspace by the middle of this century,” Williams said, adding, “This could also increase the risk of injury to passengers and crew,” especially in winter when Northern Hemisphere clear-air turbulence is thought to be most intense. With perhaps five minutes of a typical 8-hour flight today subject to such turbulence, a 170 per cent increase – to around 13½ minutes – might seem trivial to anyone but those with an extreme fear of flying. “You could argue a few more drinks will get knocked over. So what?” says Williams. But he says that the extra turbulence could cost the aviation industry dear, by accelerating aircraft wear and tear, for instance.

On June 1, 2009, Air France 447 traveling from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris, France plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 216 passengers and 12 aircrew on board.

Early speculation on the cause of the crash pointed to extreme weather conditions that the pilots of the doomed flight had entered.

Although investigators are still not certain what brought down Air France 447, it is beyond doubt that the pilots were dealing with the ‘perfect storm.’

“If you take a look at the satellite information online it was like an explosion of weather at the time the Air France flight would have been trying to pick its way through the Intertropical Convergence Zone,” William Voss, head of the Flight Safety Foundation, told Bloomberg shortly after the Air France catastrophe. “The area of weather along that route of flight wasn’t even there when the aircraft was leaving the coast.

Williams said carbon dioxide causes non-uniform warming, which increases the jet-stream winds and “creates more turbulence,” he explained.

 “Flight paths may need to become more convoluted to avoid patches of turbulence that are stronger and more frequent, in which journey times will lengthen and fuel consumption and emissions will increase,” they wrote.

“Aviation is partly responsible for changing the climate in the first place,” Williams added. “It is ironic that the climate looks set to exact its revenge by creating a more turbulent atmosphere for flying.”

Michael Sprenger at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich says future technologies should make it easier to identify and avoid clear-air turbulence, so any rise in the level of turbulence might have little impact on flights. However, if planes begin taking more convoluted routes to avoid turbulence, flight times and fuel consumption will rise, say Williams and Joshi, which may only aggravate the problem by adding yet more CO2 to the atmosphere.

“A consequence of global warming is that the frequency and severity of such events (severe weather conditions) is higher,”Aleksey Kokorin, head of Russia’s World Wildlife Fund’s Climate Program, told RT in 2009. “Unfortunately, the risk for airplanes, especially in tropical areas above water, will be higher.”

Sources: New Scientist, The Japan Times, The Financial Times, rt.com

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