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Danger in the Skies: Air Turbulence Causes and Known Routes

A Singapore Airline flight encountered severe air turbulence on Tuesday, leaving one passenger dead and injuring others.

The incident has raised concerns over dangers of turbulence and how might climate change worsen the violent phenomenon.

What is Air Turbulence?

Turbulence is unstable air movement caused by changes in wind speed and direction. It is the result of two or more wind events colliding and creating eddies, or swirls of disrupted airflow.

According to CNN, there are four levels of turbulence: light, moderate, severe and extreme. Light and moderate turbulence can make passengers feel strain against their seatbelt, causing unsecure items to move around. However, severe and extreme turbulence can cause severe injuries or death to passengers.

In a statement on Wednesday, Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading in the UK, said: “Turbulence on flights can be caused by storms, mountains, and strong air currents called jet streams. In this last case, it is called clear-air turbulence, and it can be difficult to avoid because it doesn’t show up on the weather radar in the flight deck.”

The Federal Aviation Administration website defines clear-air turbulence as “air movement created by atmospheric pressure, jet streams, air around mountains, cold or warm weather fronts or thunderstorms.”

Pilots sometimes receive warnings of turbulence in advance from the Federal Aviation Administration, airline meteorology teams or other pilots. However, it can occur without warning.

Rare Yet Dangerous

The Federal Aviation Administration data show that from 2009 to 2022, turbulence left 34 passengers and 129 crew members seriously injured. It cites turbulence as the main cause of injuries to flight passengers in nonfatal accidents on commercial flights.

However, these incidents are still rare compared to airline passenger numbers, estimated at nearly 4 billion a year. Moreover, airlines are not required to report minor injuries, so the total number is not clear.

Mark Prosser, a meteorology researcher at the University of Reading, said: “Turbulence makes flights bumpy and can occasionally be dangerous. Airlines will need to start thinking about how they will manage the increased turbulence, as it costs the industry $150–500m annually in the USA alone.”

Air Turbulence Routes

The violent phenomenon can occur anywhere and at any altitude, but some regions and routes experience turbulence more than others. According to the Conversation, the majority of turbulence routes pass close to mountains.

Routes with highest average turbulence:

#

Route

Distance (km)

Avg. turbulence (edr)

1 Santiago (SCL) – Santa Cruz (VVI) 1905 17.568
2 Almaty (ALA) – Bishkek (FRU) 210 17.457
3 Lanzhou (LHW) – Chengdu (CTU) 661 16.75
4 Centrair (NGO) – Sendai (SDJ) 517 16.579
5 Milan (MXP) – Geneva (GVA) 214 16.398
6 Lanzhou (LHW) – Xianyang (XIY) 519 16.337
7 Osaka (KIX) – Sendai (SDJ) 655 16.307
8 Xianyang (XIY) – Chengdu (CTU) 624 16.25
9 Xianyang (XIY) – Chongqing (CKG) 561 16.041
10 Milan (MXP) – Zurich (ZRH) 203 16.016
Turbulence is given in eddy dissipation rate (edr). The turbulence levels are light (0-20), moderate (20-40), severe (40-80) and extreme (80-100).

Source: turbli.com

Climate Change

Studies have found that climate change may have an impact on turbulence. A study conducted by the University of Reading last year reported a 55% increase in severe turbulence over the past 40 years on a busy North Atlantic route as a result of climate change.

Williams, who co-authored the study, told CNN in 2022 that severe turbulence “could double or triple in the coming decades.” He attributed this to clear-air turbulence, predicting that it would increase significantly in the coming decades.

Another study in 2017, which used climate modelling, projected that clear-air turbulence could quadruple by 2050, under some climate change scenarios.

How to Stay Safe?

Technology to detect turbulence is still under research and development. So far, pilots rely on the information they get from weather radar to figure out how to avoid weather patterns with high level of moisture in their flight path.

Therefore, passengers are advised to fasten their seatbelts all the time and don’t have any heavy objects out, as it is nearly impossible to anticipate when clear-air turbulence might occur.

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