Why air turbulence could get worse in the future

(CNN)– Most of us have experienced turbulence during a flight: when the plane flies between air masses that move at very different speeds.

Severe turbulence can put even the most experienced pilot in a bind and make five minutes seem like an eternity. Usually the result is nothing more than a bumpy ride, but in the worst cases it can cause damage and injury.

In non-fatal accidents, turbulence is the leading cause of injury to flight attendants and passengers, according to the FAA, and is one of the most common types of plane crashes today, according to the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, these types of accidents cost US airlines up to $500 million a year in injuries, delays and damage.

“There is a scale to measure the intensity of turbulence,” says Paul Williams, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Reading in the UK. “There is some slight turbulence, which is a little bit of tension against the seatbelt, but food service can continue and you can probably walk around the cabin, maybe with some difficulty.”

“Then there is moderate turbulence, which is a clear strain on the seatbelt, anything that is not secured will come loose and it will be difficult to walk, flight attendants are usually instructed to take their seats.”

“The worst kind is severe turbulence: it’s stronger than gravity, so it can pin you to your seat and if you’re not wearing your seatbelt you’ll be buffeted around inside the cabin. This is the kind of turbulence that causes serious injury.” : It is known to break bones, for example.”

Fast hits and no visual clues

About 65,000 planes experience moderate turbulence each year in the US, and about 5,500 encounter severe turbulence. These figures, however, could grow in the near future. Williams believes that climate change is changing turbulence, and she began studying the issue in 2013. “We did some computer simulations and found that severe turbulence could double or triple in the next few decades,” she says.

The findings, which were later confirmed by observations, highlight a type of turbulence called “clear air turbulence,” which isn’t connected to any visual clues like thunderstorms or clouds. Unlike normal turbulence, they come on suddenly and are difficult to avoid.

According to the NTSB, between 2009 and 2018, the flight crew had no warning in about 28% of turbulence-related accidents. Williams’ analysis predicts that turbulence in clear air will increase significantly around the world for the period 2050-2080, particularly along the busiest flight paths, with the strongest type of turbulence increasing the most.

However, that doesn’t mean flying will be any less safe. “Planes aren’t going to start falling out of the sky, because they’re built to a very high specification and can handle the worst turbulence you’ll find, even in the future,” says Williams.

However, the average duration of the turbulence will increase. “Normally, on a transatlantic flight, you can expect 10 minutes of turbulence. I think in a few decades this may increase to 20 minutes or half an hour. The seatbelt sign will be on much more, unfortunately for the passengers.”

The seat belt sign is on

Wearing your seat belt fastened at all times while seated is the best way to minimize the risk of injury due to turbulence.

However, flight attendants are more at risk than passengers, sustaining approximately 80% of turbulence-related injuries. “We’re the most likely to get injured because we’re working, pushing 300-pound cars, even when there’s some kind of warning,” says Sara Nelson, a 26-year United flight attendant and president of the Flight Attendants Association. Flight, a union representing 50,000 flight attendants from 20 airlines.

“We have flight attendants who have been slammed through the ceiling and fallen multiple times, resulting in broken limbs. In the aisle, with unforeseen turbulence, we’ve had people lose toes, or lose the ability to work.” , or have suffered injuries that have kept them out of work for years,” he adds.

The aviation industry is taking the problem very seriously, says Nelson, but the transition to sustainable fuel must be accelerated to deal with the climate crisis, and some regulations must change. For example, the possibility of children under two years of age flying on their parents’ laps.

“That is totally unsafe and our union has asked for a seat for every person on board,” says Nelson. “Not only can a child be thrown out of the cabin, but when getting down they can injure another person. When a child is born, they cannot leave the hospital unless they have a properly installed car seat. The same rules should apply to flights”.

Request for new stricter rules

The NTSB held a public meeting on turbulence last year, offering the same recommendation, along with stricter seatbelt standards for both passengers and flight attendants when the plane is flying in near thunderstorms and below 20,000 feet, as most injuries occur in these conditions. He also recommended streamlining systems for collecting and sharing turbulence reports, as that information isn’t traveling far enough or fast enough right now.

Although the effects of climate change on turbulence will take many years to become apparent, Nelson believes some worsening has already occurred.

“This is, of course, anecdotal, but from Hurricane Katrina onwards there seems to have been an uptick in turbulence activity, especially those that occur without warning,” he says.

His worst experience with turbulence occurred during a flight to Dallas, which was eventually diverted.

“When something happens on the plane, the passengers watch us, to see if we look worried,” he adds. “I was flying with a very good friend of mine and we were strapped into the crew seats, facing the rear of the plane, so there was a lavatory in front of us, rather than passengers.”

“Thank God, because we were grabbing each other and shaking in our seats so violently it seemed like our brains were scrambling. It lasted a long time, but luckily we made it to land,” she says.

“Normally I’m not scared of turbulence, because it’s something we’re taught in training and we know what to do to protect ourselves. But it’s possible that the turbulence could be so bad and last so long that, even knowing all that, my friend and I were praying …and I have to say I was in fear for my life.”

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