Paul Williams/University of Reading, UK

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ScienceShot: Climate Change Will Boost Plane Turbulence

Get used to a bumpy ride. The strength and frequency of atmospheric turbulence affecting transatlantic flights will increase by midcentury, a new study suggests. Researchers used a global climate model to assess the intensity of clear-air turbulence—the kind that stems from wind shear. In particular, the researchers assessed the intensity of turbulence at a point in the future when carbon dioxide concentrations are twice the levels they were before human industrial activity began boosting them substantially—which, according to a middle-of-the-road emissions scenario, will likely occur sometime in the 2050s. For their analysis, they simulated atmospheric conditions at an altitude of about 12 kilometers (a typical cruise altitude for airliners) in the northern portion of the North Atlantic, a region that includes most transatlantic routes. During winter months, when clear-air turbulence is at its worst in that area, 16 of the 21 often-used ways in which scientists measure turbulence suggest that the average intensity of the plane-rattling phenomenon (image depicts turbulence intensity on a random winter day) will be between 10% and 40% stronger when CO2 concentrations are double their preindustrial value, the researchers report online today in Nature Climate Change. Accordingly, the frequency of moderate-or-greater turbulence—intensities at which passengers will experience accelerations of 0.5 g or more, which are strong enough to toss items about the cabin—will rise by between 40% and 170%. As a result of pilots needing to dodge strong turbulence, flight paths will become longer, and fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions will increase—possibly leading to even more turbulence. Hold on tight.

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