Scientists say climate change is to blame for increased turbulence on flights

Traveling for work, to see loved ones, or take a vacation can already be a hassle. But as temperatures get warmer, your flight may get bumpier, and that “fasten seatbelts” sign may stay on even longer. Scientists said climate change is to blame for an increase in air turbulence.

“This is an impact of global warming,” said Dr. Jim Kinter, professor of climate dynamics at George Mason University in Northern Virginia. He said the turbulent air is caused by something called wind shear, which changes with temperature.

“The atmosphere is changing in such a way to produce more wind shear,” Kinter explained. “The favorable conditions for the formation of clear-air turbulence are getting better.”

Kinter said as the atmosphere warms up, there’s more energy and air flow near Earth’s surface.

“We’re getting more and more shear over time as a result of global warming in the stratosphere and global cooling in the troposphere,” he told WTOP.

Kinter said the difference between the hottest and coldest parts of the Earth — the poles and the equator — is known as the “temperature gradient.”

As the planet warms from climate change, the temperature gradient gets smaller and smaller (because there’s less of a difference between hot and cold extremes). This shrinking gradient causes a rise in temperature in parts of the atmosphere that absorb more greenhouse gases, and a drop in parts of the atmosphere further out.

Ultimately, the end result is that air just above and below the jet streams, or narrow bands of strong wind where planes fly in the upper atmosphere, becomes more volatile.

This causes those turbulent air pockets to pop up more and more.

Clear-air turbulence, or the presence of turbulence without clouds or any other marker, is already impossible to predict because it doesn’t show up on radar.

“It’s scary when you’re on a plane that drops out of nowhere, especially when the pilot isn’t expecting it,” Kinter said.

He added that climate changes means more clear-air turbulence, and the more clear-air turbulence due to climate change along with the inability to detect it will lead to more bumpy flights, and potential dramatic drops in the air.

“You may see hundreds of feet of shifts that happen very rapidly,” Kinter told WTOP.

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Matt Kaufax

A Northern Virginia native who grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, Matt is thrilled to be back home in the D.C. metro area covering news for a station he grew up listening to. Keeping the community he calls home informed about the day's events is something he considers an honor and privilege.

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