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The connection between climate change and turbulence

Turbulence has many causes, but clear air turbulence is the hardest to track and predict.

Sixteen people were hospitalised today after ‘severe’ turbulence forced a transatlantic flight to make an emergency landing at Shannon Airport in Ireland.

United Airlines flight UA-880 was en route to London’s Heathrow airport from Houston, Texas with 207 passengers and 13 crew on board. It’s unclear what caused this particularly violent bout of rough air — but climate change could mean many more airline passengers are in for a bumpy ride.

Why does turbulence occur?

There are a number of different causes of turbulence, including thermal currents, upward and downward currents from thunderclouds, rising air and an aircraft’s so-called ‘wake vortex’. Pilots are trained to understand how to deal with turbulence and flight paths are customised to minimise the risk of running into a rough patch.

However, clear air turbulence (CAT), which occurs in cloudless skies, is much more difficult to predict and cannot be detected via radar.  CAT is thought to be caused by the edge of a jet stream mixing with slower moving air.

What effect do CO2 emissions have?

Earlier this year, a report by a scientist from the University of Reading predicted that the jet stream — bands of strong winds which shift weather systems around the globe — could become 15 percent stronger if global temperatures continue to rise. As a result, westbound flight times will be increased and turbulence could become so severe as to inhibit travel at certain times.

To make matters worse, longer flight times will require a predicted 7.2 million additional gallons of jet fuel, which will in turn emit an extra 70 million kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere. More turbulent flights could also result in increased wear and tear on an aircraft, increasing the time and money spent on maintenance.

Fearful fliers beware, the skies could get a lot choppier if fossil fuel emissions continue to rise. 

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