Air travel is awful, and it’s only going to get worse in the future. But it’s not just that airlines are going to keep jacking up fees, canceling your flights at the last minute, and passing out bags of sand-flavored pretzels that exacerbate your dehydration-fueled headache. Rising global temperatures could make future flights more vom-inducing. Great.
That’s the conclusion of a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters this week, which adds to a growing pile of research suggesting that air travel is going to get harder as global temperatures rise. Using supercomputer models and assuming humanity keeps spewing carbon into the air like there’s no tomorrow, the study projects that by 2050-2080, severe air turbulence could double over heavily trafficked flight corridors in North America, the North Pacific, and Europe.
Over less trafficked continents including South America, Australia and Africa, air turbulence could become 50 to 60 percent more common by late century, the study projects.
“This is what we were expecting to find,” University of Reading PhD student and lead study author Luke Storer told Earther, noting that prior research led by his supervisor projected increased wintertime air turbulence across the North Atlantic as the planet heats up. “We took that previous work and expanded it to look globally, and found that air turbulence will increase all over.”
As Storer noted, the new study looked at shifting turbulence patterns all around the world, and in all four seasons. Specifically, the researchers modeled clear air turbulence (CAT), which is turbulence that occurs when the air is, well, clear, making it invisible to pilots and onboard radar. CAT is primarily caused by vertical wind shear, or changes in wind speed at different levels of the atmosphere. More shear, more CAT.
The new models showed that as global temperatures rise, a stronger jet stream will on average produce more vertical wind shear within the cruising altitude of commercial airlines (between about 34,000 and 39,000 feet).
“In mid to high latitudes around Europe and North America, that’s where the jet stream is most prominent, and it’s where we see the biggest increase in turbulence,” Storer said. That included an increase in the most severe air turbulence, a leading cause of serious injuries on airlines.
A study like this comes with plenty of caveats. For one, its projections are based on models that only consider a single carbon emissions scenario—specifically, a worst-case one. “So emissions reductions could lessen the results,” said Ethan Coffell, an atmospheric science PhD student at Columbia University who recently published work finding that increased heat waves could make it harder for airlines to take off in the future. The study ignored other important sources of air turbulence, such as convective air turbulence, which is more prevalent at mid-latitudes and is caused by updrafts of warm air, as well as turbulence caused by eddies that form as wind flies around a mountain.
What’s more, improved detection of CAT in the future, along with better aircraft design—SpaceX’s proposed ballistic missile system, anyone?—could help airlines avoid a lot of the turbulence brought about by a carbon-loaded atmosphere.
“To me this study (along with the growing body of work on climate-aviation impacts) indicates that climate change could have serious effects on aircraft operations and is something that airlines might want to study and plan for,” Coffell said.
As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that air travel itself is a big contributor to climate change, and reducing the number of flights you take is one of the easiest ways to bring your personal carbon footprint down. If you’re bummed to hear that future flights are going to be rockier, maybe start thinking about how you can tailor your lifestyle to fly less. It could make the occasional plane ride more bearable for everyone.