Rising carbon dioxide means more air turbulence

More jarring flights are likely, simulation suggests

The friendly skies are becoming the bumpy skies. As carbon dioxide emissions increase, so too will the prevalence and power of the turbulence that strikes fear in the hearts of white-knuckled airline passengers, a new computer simulation suggests.

BUMPY FUTURE Air turbulence (red patch) over the North Atlantic may become stronger and more frequent in a world with twice as much atmospheric carbon dioxide (right) compared with preindustrial times (left). P. Williams/Univ. of Reading

Paul Williams of the University of Reading in England and Manoj Joshi of the University of East Anglia in England simulated air turbulence at cruising altitudes for transatlantic flights between North America and Europe during winter. Moderate to severe turbulence would be 40 to 170 percent more frequent in a world that had twice as much atmospheric CO2 as preindustrial times did, the researchers report April 8 in Nature Climate Change. That’s a threshold that Earth could surpass by 2050. Changes in turbulence are probably linked to alterations in the fast-moving air currents known as the jet streams, the researchers say. Previous work suggests that the jet streams should shift north and strengthen as the climate warms in response to rising CO2 concentrations. 

The intensified turbulence, Williams and Joshi warn, may force airlines to develop more convoluted flight paths that avoid turbulent regions. The result would be longer plane rides, greater fossil fuel consumption and the release of even more CO2.

Erin Wayman

Erin Wayman is the magazine managing editor. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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