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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
HomeAviationClimate Change Could Be Causing More Air Traffic Turbulence

Climate Change Could Be Causing More Air Traffic Turbulence

On Monday 20 May 2024, a Singapore Airlines flight from London to Singapore encountered severe turbulence, resulting in one passenger’s death from a presumed heart attack and several others badly injured.

The plane made an emergency landing in Bangkok, Thailand. The severity of the situation prompted doctors to initiate an emergency plan to assist affected passengers.

The turbulence also caused significant damage inside the plane, with parts of the ceiling and luggage compartments collapsing. Turbulence-related fatalities on commercial flights are fortunately rare but have increased over time.

Injuries from turbulence have piled up, and some meteorologists and aviation analysts attribute this to climate change’s impact on flying conditions. Out of millions upon millions of flights, turbulence has caused 185 serious injuries from 2009 to 2023.

Climate change and global warming have long been associated with rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and shifting ecosystems.

As we continue to burn fossil fuels and release greenhouse gases, the atmospheric changes are not just theoretical—they affect our daily lives in tangible ways. Air travel, a cornerstone of global connectivity and commerce, is becoming increasingly fraught with unpredictability.

Addressing climate change is not just about preventing natural disasters or saving endangered species. It is about safeguarding the systems and infrastructures we rely on daily.

The aviation industry, already grappling with the need to reduce its carbon footprint, now faces an additional imperative: adapting to a more turbulent atmosphere.
Death by turbulence rarely occurs, but severe encounters are not uncommon, according to Larry Cornman, a physicist and project scientist with the U.S. National Science Foundation National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“Often, for something like this, it’s just wrong place, wrong time,” said Cornman, who studies small-scale motions of the atmosphere that could endanger aircraft.
Of the reported incidents from 2009 to 2022, at least 129 crew members and 34 passengers were injured.

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Turbulence-related deaths can be caused by heart attacks or head injuries if a passenger’s head strikes the ceiling or gets hit by falling luggage, Cornman said.
“Anything that could cause a death on the ground can certainly cause it inside an aluminium tube at 35,000 feet,” he said, adding that seat-belted passengers should still feel safe in the skies.

“These large transport aircraft are built quite strongly. They will not fall apart or come out of the sky due to turbulence,” Cornman said.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said initial reports appear to indicate that the Singapore flight encountered clear-air turbulence, the most dangerous type because it cannot be seen and is virtually undetectable with current technology.

“One second, you’re cruising smoothly,” Nelson said. “The next, passengers, crew and unsecured carts or other items are being thrown around the cabin.”

Nelson and a group of researchers say such incidents of clear-air turbulence — which is difficult to forecast and avoid because it is not associated with storms, are on the rise due to climate change.

These incidents have highlighted how our changing climate is affecting air travel in unsettling ways.

A 2023 study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that severe clear-air turbulence increased by more than 50% over the North Atlantic Ocean from 1979 to 2020.

Several high-profile turbulence incidents in recent years underscore the seriousness of this emerging threat.

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In March 2023, a Lufthansa flight from Austin to Frankfurt encountered severe turbulence over Tennessee, resulting in seven injuries and forcing an emergency landing in Washington, D.C. Passengers described a terrifying scene of food, beverages, and personal belongings violently tossed around the cabin.

A study conducted by the University of Reading in the UK projected that by the 2050s, the amount of severe turbulence experienced by aircraft could increase by up to 170%.

This prediction is based on climate models that simulate future atmospheric conditions under ongoing global warming scenarios. The study’s findings indicate that the North Atlantic flight corridor, one of the busiest airspaces in the world, is particularly vulnerable.

Airlines and aviation authorities are acutely aware of these risks and are taking steps to mitigate them. Enhanced forecasting tools are being developed to better predict CAT.
Additionally, pilots are receiving more comprehensive training to handle unexpected turbulence encounters. Despite these efforts, the unpredictable nature of turbulence means that some risks will always remain.

Climate change is not only affecting our environment but also influencing the safety of air travel. As we continue to address global warming, understanding and mitigating the impact of turbulence on flights become crucial.

Passengers and crews should remain vigilant, fasten their seat belts, and be prepared for the unexpected bumps in the sky.

Moreover, airlines are investing in newer aircraft designed to withstand greater stress and equipped with advanced technology to detect and avoid turbulence.

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Multi-award winning journalist/photojournalist with keen interests in politics, youth, child rights, women and development issues. Follow Lovejoy On Twitter @L_JayMut

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