Today, turbulence accounts for 64% of weather-related accidents in the aviation industry and is the leading cause of serious injuries to flight attendants.

Luke Storer of the University of Reading, UK, and collaborators compared computer simulations of turbulence under pre-industrial conditions and for a possible future climate of 2050–2080 if present-day emissions continue. If that’s the case, the team found, the frequency of severe turbulence is set to increase by 110% over North America and 160% over Europe, some of the world’s busiest international airspace.

This global approach builds on previous work that suggested a worsening of turbulence in specific places or times of year. The new study not only corroborates these findings, but demonstrates the much broader scope of the effect. All severity categories of turbulence are set to increase in volume, meaning aeroplanes will encounter them more frequently. What is now considered severe turbulence is predicted to become as common as today’s moderate turbulence, placing airline staff and passengers at greater risk.

Clear-air turbulence, the type studied here, is invisible and cannot be detected by onboard radar. Currently it’s tackled primarily with predictive forecasting, a process that’s skilled but has significant room for improvement. Storer and colleagues’ results emphasize the importance of improving this system to reduce the risk of injury to passengers and crew.

The study also indicates that designers working on the next generation of commercial airliners must prepare for a more turbulent flying environment. The worst-case emissions scenario this study uses may not come to pass if the world acts on greenhouse-gas emissions, but it could be wise to prepare for a bumpy ride.

Using the HadGEM2–ES atmospheric model developed by the UK’s Met Office, the researchers compared the turbulence present in two simulated atmospheres. One had pre-industrial greenhouse-gas levels. The other assumed greenhouse-gas emissions followed Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This implies total greenhouse-gas concentrations (including carbon dioxide and other gases such as methane) equivalent to 1370 ppm of carbon dioxide by 2050, and global warming of around 2°C over pre-industrial temperatures.

Storer and colleagues published their work in Geophysical Research Letters.

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