Climate Change and Air Travel: How Rising Temperatures Are Increasing Turbulence Risk

Clear-air turbulence, an invisible and unpredictable threat, is becoming an increasingly significant concern for air travelers and the aviation industry as climate change alters atmospheric conditions

by Sededin Dedovic
Climate Change and Air Travel: How Rising Temperatures Are Increasing Turbulence Risk
© David Ryder / Getty Images

Geoff Kitchen was on his way to a six-week vacation in South Asia and Australia with his wife, Linda. After ten hours of flying and in the middle of breakfast, the plane on Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 from London to Singapore dropped 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) in just a few minutes.

Kitchen suffered a cardiac arrest and eventually passed away. At least 71 people were injured, and 20 remain in intensive care units in Bangkok. How often do such injuries and deaths occur, what are air turbulences, are they worsening, and do climate changes play a role?

How often does air travel lead to injuries?

Compared to millions of flights each year (40.1 million expected in 2024), what happened on flight SQ321 is rare.

In the USA, the world’s largest air travel market, only 163 injuries requiring hospitalization occurred between 2009 and 2022, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) did not report any fatalities related to turbulence on a major aircraft during that period.

It is also almost inconceivable that turbulence would bring down a plane, let alone a commercial one. Although a plane crashed in 2001, it was due to a technical fault and not directly related to turbulence. This was American Airlines flight 587 from New York to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

The NTSB confirmed that turbulence caused a failure in the plane’s vertical stabilizer.

What causes turbulence?

Turbulence is essentially a disturbance in the air, and there are several different types and reasons for its occurrence.

Terrain like mountains can deflect air currents, forcing them to rise over natural obstacles, which can cause airwaves that create turbulence. While weather conditions can also influence turbulence, the ones causing the most concern are called clear-air turbulence (CAT).

"This can be caused by what is known as gravity waves, which create undulations in the air that you can't see. The only way pilots learn about it is by hearing from pilots who have previously passed through. Pilots often listen to reports from those who flew the same route a few minutes earlier.

This is the best way to detect these turbulences," said Ramalingam Saravanan, head of the atmospheric sciences department at Texas A&M University, to Al Jazeera.

A British Airways plane comes in to land at Heathrow Airport© Scott Barbour / Getty Images

Are turbulences becoming more frequent and are climate changes responsible?

A study from the University of Reading in England published last year found that from 1979 to 2020, clear-air turbulence over the North Atlantic, one of the world's busiest flying routes, increased by 55 percent.

Higher temperatures can affect wind patterns. The report claims that greenhouse gas emissions are largely to blame. This is echoed by researchers from the University of Chicago, who predict that warming could lead to higher wind speeds in the "fastest jet stream." The study suggests that speeds will increase by two percent for every degree of warming.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at this rate, temperatures are expected to rise by four degrees by the end of the century. Global temperatures have risen by at least 1.1 degrees since the pre-industrial era. During this period, according to NASA, the greatest increase was from 1975 onwards.

Researchers from the University of Chicago say that due to the expected record wind speeds, airlines will need to reduce speeds to limit the impacts of turbulence. Turbulence is expected to increase most dramatically over the North Atlantic – a key route between North America and Europe, but significant increases are also expected in southeastern China, the western Pacific, and northern India.

A study from Nanjing University in China from 2021 predicts a 15 percent increase in CAT cases by 2059. The increase in the Asia-Pacific region is a growing concern for the aviation industry. China is expected to surpass the USA as the market with the highest number of air passengers by 2037.

Who is most affected by turbulence?

Turbulence issues concern the safety of people in the plane more than the aircraft itself and primarily affect passengers and crew who are not properly buckled up. Crew members account for 79 percent of all turbulence-related injuries.

"Turbulence is a serious workplace safety issue for flight attendants," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. "Although the details of the Singapore flight are still under investigation, early reports indicate clear-air turbulence, which is the most dangerous type.

It can't be seen and is practically undetectable with current technology. One moment you're flying smoothly, and the next, passengers, crew, carts, and other items are flying around the cabin," Nelson added.

Do turbulences harm airline profits?

Despite how rare turbulence-related disasters are, they cost the aviation industry up to $500 million annually.

This explains the damage to aircraft and their cabins, delays, and occasional liability payments. Given that turbulence will become more frequent in the coming years, costs will rise. According to the Montreal Convention of 1999, airlines need to be financially responsible for injuries sustained in-flight due to turbulence, including damage to luggage, as well as injuries and even death, reports AlJazeera.