PHOTO: Scientists suggest flight turbulence could become even more common if current climate change trends continue. (photo via Flickr/Dr. Wendy Longo)
A new study suggests that flight turbulence will become a more common occurrence in the decades to come as a result of climate change.
The research, published in the journal of "Advances in Atmospheric Sciences," projects severe turbulence to become three times more common as carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere rise.
Relying on supercomputer simulations, researchers analyzed vertical and horizontal changes in wind speed and direction on transatlantic flights to determine that doubling CO2 levels in the atmosphere—which scientists say could be achieved by mid-century if current trends continue—could result in a 149 percent increase in severe clear air turbulence at an altitude of 11 kilometers (6.8 miles).
The study also predicts that the aforementioned CO2 increase could result in light turbulence increasing by 59 percent, light-to-moderate turbulence rising by 75 percent, moderate turbulence increasing by 94 percent and moderate-to-severe turbulence increasing by as much as 127 percent.
"Our new study paints the most detailed picture yet of how aircraft turbulence will respond to climate change," the study's author, Paul D. Williams told the New Scientist.
"For most passengers, light turbulence is nothing more than an annoying inconvenience that reduces their comfort levels, but for nervous fliers, even light turbulence can be distressing," added Williams. "However, 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."
While turbulence is already a safe, natural and common occurrence on many commercial flights, rarely does it result in injury, let alone serious injury. Still, because many incidents go unreported, it's difficult to come up with an accurate estimate for the injury impact.
READ MORE: Blindsided by Turbulence: Why Keeping Your Seatbelt Fastened is a Good Idea
According to estimates cited by the study's researchers, an average of 790 episodes of turbulence result in 55 serious injuries to flight attendants and passengers traveling with scheduled U.S. carriers each year.
When it occurs, turbulence typically only lasts a few minutes. Nonetheless, a few minutes can be enough to unsettle some air travelers, as Williams noted.
Recently, pilot Timothy Griffin launched the MyFlight Forecast app designed to reduce the fear of flying by providing passengers with live turbulence reports for their upcoming flight. The app is free to download on iPhone and Android devices.