Climate Change Could Mean Bumpier Flights

ENVIRONMENT

Climate Change Could Mean Bumpier Flights
Buckle up—thanks to climate change, airline passengers may be in for a bumpier ride. By 2050, airplanes could see a doubling in instances of turbulence over the North Atlantic Ocean—one of the world’s busiest flight corridors—due to shifts in the jet stream as a result of global warming, according to a new study.

New climate models suggest "clear-air turbulence" could be rocking and rolling the skies in the near future.Photograph by Michael Walker

New climate models suggest “clear-air turbulence” could be rocking and rolling the skies in the near future.
Photograph by Michael Walker

Discussion Ideas:

  • This study links global warming (the current period of climate change) with increased “clear-air turbulence.” Turbulence is the random motion of air, caused by changes in air currents. Read through our activity “Extreme Weather on Earth,” which includes the video “Weather 101,” to better understand how our atmosphere is “an extreme weather engine powered by the sun.”
  • The air currents that influence clear-air turbulence are called jet streams. Read our short encyclopedic entry on jet streams to better understand how the movement of heat in the atmosphere influences these air currents. (The short section “The Atmosphere” is especially relevant.) Can students predict what layer of the atmosphere may be most influenced by global warming or other temperature changes? Can they predict how these changes may contribute to greater turbulence?
    • The troposphere, the lowest layer of Earth’s atmosphere, may be the layer most influenced by global warming. (Jet streams, high-flying and fast-driving winds, speed across the very top of the troposphere, the tropopause.) All weather, including the formation of clouds and storm fronts, takes place in the troposphere. If global warming contributes to more temperature changes in the troposphere, clear-air turbulence may increase.
  • The region studied by the climate scientists in the article is the North Atlantic Ocean. Why do students think this is an important region for studying turbulence?
    • The North Atlantic links the East Coast of the U.S. with Western Europe, two of the most highly developed regions in the world. Watch this video on worldwide air-traffic patterns to see how the North Atlantic tracks are probably the most highly traveled air corridors in the world. Billion-dollar business travel and tourism industries rely on the steady flow of traffic across the North Atlantic.
  • According to industry experts, turbulence is not a particularly dangerous phenomena in air travel. Planes are built to withstand much more turbulence than climate models predict, and pilots are trained to navigate in much worse weather. “Turbulence feels worse than it is,” says this veteran pilot. “Usually the altimeter never really moves.” Why, then, do students think scientists are studying turbulence patterns?
    • Turbulence is extremely uncomfortable for passengers and crew! The “dropping” sensation can increase anxiety. Turbulence can also increase the frequency of small accidents (such as the spilling of drinks or, according to the article, being bumped out of your seat a little bit). Crew, who are not usually buckled into their seats, are at greater risk for injuries when the plane experiences turbulence.
    • Turbulence is an important indicator of the state of the atmosphere. Turbulence and the movement of jet streams may help climate scientists better understand and predict weather phenomena such as storms or rainfall patterns.
  • The scientists who wrote the article based their findings on climate models. Read our Real-World Geography profile of climatologist Chris Funk, who also relies on climate models for his work. Dr. Funk does not analyze turbulence in the North Atlantic Ocean, however. Can students identify some other weather phenomena Dr. Funk analyzes and predicts using climate models? Where is his work focused?
    • Dr. Funk focuses on analyzing data from climate models of East Africa. Climate models are helping Dr. Funk and other scientists consider how frequent droughts are influencing farming practices in developing nations there.

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