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April 06, 2017

Air turbulence on flights is annoying at best, and dangerous at worst. And the worst air turbulence could become more common because of climate change, according to a new study out of the University of Reading published in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.

Climate change is generating wind shears within the jet stream over North America and the North Atlantic Ocean. Wind shears — changes in direction and speed of wind that vary in strength — are a primary cause of air turbulence.

The study found that the occurrence of light turbulence could increase by 59 percent, light-to-moderate turbulence by 75 percent, moderate by 94 percent, and moderate-to-severe by 127 percent. Turbulence “strong enough to catapult unbuckled passengers and crew around the aircraft cabin” could become two to three times more common.

“Our new study paints the most detailed picture yet of how aircraft turbulence will respond to climate change,” study author Dr. Paul Williams said in a statement. “Even the most seasoned frequent fliers may be alarmed at the prospect of a 149 percent increase in severe turbulence, which frequently hospitalizes air travelers and flight attendants around the world.”

Turbulence is normal, and passengers should not be alarmed by it, but the study backs up previous research that a warmer planet means stronger disruptions.

Williams as well as Manoj Joshi of the University of East Anglia published a similar study in 2013 on the topic.

“My top priority for the future is to investigate other flight routes around the world,” said Williams. “We also need to investigate the altitude and seasonal dependence of the changes, and to analyze different climate models and warming scenarios to quantify the uncertainties.”

Passengers concerned about turbulence can check Turbulence Forecast before their flight. And everyone should pay attention when the pilot says to buckle up.

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