Airlines in for a bumpy ride as global warming intensifies

Much has been written about the impact of aviation on climate change, but climate change also has an impact on aviation. That impact is already being felt by passengers, and in the coming years scientists say they will feel it a lot more.

Increased incidents of severe turbulence and significant delays to flight times are just a couple of the issues the aviation industry could face as the planet warms up.

Recent research suggests that when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere double, as they are scientifically projected to do by the middle of this century, incidents of severe turbulence and associated injuries and aircraft damage will skyrocket for wintertime transatlantic crossings.

Flights might not only get bumpier, but could take longer as well.

Dr Paul Williams, the author of a University of Reading study published in the Advances in Atmospheric Sciences journal earlier this month, tells RGN that as increased carbon dioxide levels continue to strengthen the jet stream, the amount of time it takes to cross the Atlantic could be significantly affected.

“There will be a higher probability of record-breaking crossing times from New York to London, but much more delayed flight times westbound,” says Williams, citing examples of westbound flights that have had to make unexpected refuelling stops in Maine because of stronger-than-expected headwinds.

In his study on turbulence, Williams found that when compared with pre-industrial times, a doubling of carbon dioxide levels would result in a 149% increase in severe clear-air turbulence – the kind that causes “any passengers or flight attendants not buckled up to potentially be tossed around the cabin”.

Light turbulence would increase by 59%, light-to-moderate by 75%, moderate by 94% and moderate-to-severe by 127%.

If you’ve already noticed that flights seem bumpier, that could be because some of these increases in turbulence have already started. But things are set to get much worse.

“We will have already seen a third of the increase, with two-thirds yet to come,” says Williams.

The study used climate model simulations to analyze transatlantic wintertime clear-air turbulence at aircraft cruising altitude. Williams is now studying other flight corridors and seasons and hopes to produce results in six to 12 months, although he expects the findings to be similar.

“My educated guess would be that the changes we see in the North Atlantic will happen all over the world,” he says.

It is not just nervous flyers who should be concerned. Williams cites estimates in his report that put the annual cost of turbulence to US airlines at $200 million.

“The economic costs of turbulence arise from injuries to passengers and crew, damage to airframes and cabins, flight delays, inspections, repairs, and post-accident investigations,” says the report.

Williams believes that “behind the scenes, airlines are beginning to think about” the possibility of increased turbulence and other climate change-related issues. However, he adds: “Many airlines see this as a distant problem long off into the future. Their focus is on remaining profitable in the current tax year.”

There are actions airlines could take to reduce the impact of future turbulence on their operations, such as retrofitting aircraft with light detection and ranging (LIDAR) equipment to give pilots enough warning to make evasive manoeuvres. Inflight connectivity providers are also poised to support better turbulence detection for airlines.

But such measures obviously come with a cost.

“The problem is this [LIDAR] technology is expensive, but I would fully expect the cost to come down,” says Williams.

Further advances in airframes between now and the 2050s could also help to mitigate the effects of turbulence, but “Boeing and Airbus have to think about this problem today” when designing future models, says Williams.

Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this subject.

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