Buckle Up: Warming Climate Increasing Risk of In-Flight Clear Air Turbulence
Flying may have been great-fun back in the 50s and 60s, when it was considered elegant and stylish to get a full-course meal on the way to your destination. People actually dressed up to go on flights! Today air travel is a mixed blessing: costs have come way down on many flights - so nearly everyone has the ability to fly now. But an airplane is basically a bus with wings. Expect to be inconvenienced. As I explain, my favorite carrier, Delta, has 3 levels of service: Delta One, Comfort and Discomfort.
It's still a minor miracle that you can get to almost anywhere in the continental US in 2-3 hours, a trip that would have taken months back in the 19th century. But when you do board your next flight make sure you keep your seat belt fastened at all times, because clear air turbulence is increasing, and the most likely culprit is a warming atmosphere.
A new study finds that severe or greater CAT (clear air turbulence) has increased by a whopping 55% since 1979. The research findings suggest: "The increases are largest over the USA and North Atlantic, which are both busy flight regions." Yeah, that next flight to Europe may be considerably bumpier than you remember back in the 70s or 80s. What fun.
The study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, shows, with high confidence, where clear air turbulence is most likely to occur, from the continental US into the North Atlantic. Why is this happening? Warming is "lumpy". The atmosphere is not warming uniformly, but unevenly - like a layer cake where a few of the layers didn't turn out right. This uneven warming is the culprit, and the US just happens to be the clear air turbulence capital of the world now. We got that going for us.
Many people are still reluctant to fly, for a long list of reasons. It's still safer than driving, statistically, but clear air turbulence on the increase introduces a new wrinkle (and cost) to the travel equation. According to The BBC: "The aviation industry loses between $150m and $500m in the US alone annually due to effects of turbulence, including wear-and-tear on aircraft, said the researchers. It also has an environmental cost, as pilots burn up fuel avoiding it."
New technology in the cockpit will help pilots route flights around suspected areas of clear air turbulence, but the system will never be perfect or risk free. We need new coping skills. In addition to always keeping my seat belt on, I drink sparingly on a flight, so I don't have to stand in the aisle, waiting to use the restroom, putting me at greater risk if we do hit bad air. I guess I could start wearing a diaper again? Bad idea Paul.
As I explain to my dear wife, we don't scream or panic every time we hit a pothole while driving. Clear air turbulence is a "pothole in the sky" and airplanes are designed to handle the additional stress.
Human beings? Not so much. Use that seat belt and pray for a smooth ride.