It’s Not Your Imagination, Air Turbulence is Getting Worse and Here’s Why

When you take your next flight, there’s a good chance you’ll be in for a bumpy ride. That’s because there’s been an increase in turbulence during air travel lately. Air turbulence is a naturally occurring event caused by a number of environmental factors, including thunderstorms, mountain waves and thermals, and rising air currents. Imagine a juggler juggling balls, some higher than others. The higher a ball goes, the more unstable the parcel of air becomes, thereby generating turbulence. It’s the same way with aircraft. Clear-air turbulence (CAT) occurs in cloudless regions away from storms and is predominantly created by intense changes in wind direction and/or speed. When wind shear is strong enough, the air will overturn, creating turbulent whirls that cause the aircraft to experience rapid up-and-down motions. Unlike turbulence caused by thunderstorms, CAT is not visible to pilots or meteorologists, or even detectable on radar. That means it’s virtually impossible for pilots to avoid. So, why is air turbulence getting worse? The short answer is climate change. The steadily increasing amount of warm air due to carbon dioxide emissions has kept pace with the rate of CAT increases, which means climate change is having a significant impact on the frequency of air turbulence because of greater instances of highly unstable air. The most active areas of increased CAT are over the busy North Atlantic flight corridor that connects Europe to North America, and across a large swath of the continental United States. Despite the dire predictions, experts say that air turbulence, either caused by CAT or more visible storms and cloud formations, is not at all likely to bring down a commercial aircraft. Commercial passenger planes are sturdily built and undergo numerous stress tests to ensure their airworthiness before they go into service. Since turbulence can occur at any time, it’s always best to leave your seat belt on and minimize walking about the cabin.