Keep those seatbelts fastened, flyers.
Flights have become increasingly bumpy over the past four decades, and researchers say intensifying turbulence is due to global warming, according to a new study.
A type of flight turbulence known as clean air turbulence has increased 55% from 1979 to 2020 — and is expected to become even more frequent as climate change worsens, according to a study published Thursday.
The biggest increases were over the USA and North Atlantic, which are busy flight regions, the report found.
“There are [several] causes of flight turbulence. One is things like clouds that you can see, and they create turbulence. There are also waves created by mountains when wind floats over them, and they create turbulence,” Ramalingam Saravanan, head of Texas A&M University’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, told KXAN.
“The last two types, you cannot see it as you can a cloud,” he continued. “You see clear air, and a plane flies through it, then you feel turbulent. That’s why it’s called clear air turbulence.”
Unlike turbulence such as clouds and storms that can be detected and avoided with mapping technology, clean air turbulence is more difficult to track.
Saravanan told the outlet that the global increase in greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide and methane has caused the atmosphere to warm and the stratosphere over the poles to cool.
The resulting effect is a phenomenon known as “wind shear,” which is a change in wind speed and direction over a short distance, according to Saravanan. The wind change causes a bumpier flight.
“We can show with computer models that if you put an increase in greenhouse gases into the future, the wind shear is going to increase,” he told KXAN. “Using [those models], we can predict the turbulence is likely to increase.”
Saravanan said that while shaky rides can be uncomfortable or distressing to passengers, few people are ever injured from turbulence and its unlikely to have any effect on flight safety.
The scientist also noted that climate change has impacted wind speeds across the globe which will also likely have impacts on flight times.
“If you asked me to list the top things to worry about with climate change, turbulence wouldn’t be in the top five,” Saravanan confirmed. “But it is an interesting effect,” he noted.