Pass the Dramamine – Airline Turbulence Increasing in a Warming World
I love to fly, preferably a window seat so I can examine the clouds and snap a few pictures. What a weather-geek. And from 30,000 feet my problems seem positively Lilliputian. After a scary case of clear air turbulence back in the 90s, my wife took a Fear of Flying class on Northwest Airlines, which helped her anxiety. Lately airline turbulence has been making the news more often, with close calls in Hawaii, Raleigh-Durham and a recent Lufthansa flight that dropped 1,000 feet in seconds over Tennessee. Is this a fluke or a trend?
Scientific research suggests it may, in fact, be a trend related to warming of the planet and "wind shear", rapid changes in wind direction and speed as you rise up through the atmosphere. A paper at Nature concludes: "Our results indicate that climate change may be having a larger impact on the North Atlantic jet stream than previously thought."
It's not your imagination: data suggests that flights are becoming bumpier as reports of moderate to severe turbulence increase. According to a 2021 National Transportation Safety Board report, turbulence was responsible for 37.6% of accidents on large commercial airlines between 2009 and 2018.
The jets flown by airlines are designed to withstand severe turbulence. People tend to freak out when they look out the window and see the wings flapping, but airplane frames are amazingly resilient. According to pilots, turbulence is most dangerous during take-off and landing, but at altitude severe shaking, bumps and even dramatic losses in altitude pose more risk to people than to airplane integrity itself.
My take-away: always keep your seat belt on, because you just never know when your flight may be instantly transformed into a 30-second thrill ride at Universal Studios.
Flying is still much safer than driving, but it's prudent to take reasonable precautions just in case you hit a big, unexpected atmospheric pothole in the sky.