Thursday, June 20, 2024

Are we seeing more flight turbulence, and is it linked to climate change? Yes and yes.

 We have seen numerous reports of airliners suddenly plunging hundreds or thousands of feet midflight.

And a fair amount of suggestion that atmospheric turbulence is the cause, along with some guesswork that turbulence is increasing due to climate change.

Could that be true? The answer seems to be, yes.

There does seem to be a fair amount of turbulence-related airline drama this year. Here is a review of one kind, clear-air turbulence. 

There is also thunderstorm-related turbulence, and other kinds.

In February 10, 2024, a United flight experienced “moderate turbulence” between Newark and Los Angeles. Several passengers were injured.  

On May 20, a Singapore Airlines flight experienced severe turbulence over Myanmar, which caused significant injury.

Also in May, a Qatar Airways flight between Dohar and Dublin was knocked around, apparently by turbulence May 26. 

To be clear, a review of many recent incidents of bumpy plane rides suggests that a lot of them have little or nothing to do with climate or turbulence.

An April 11, 2024, Southwest flight had a sudden drop while approaching Lihue Airport, leveling off at about 400 feet above the ocean. That, investigators said, was due to mistake at the controls by a pilot.

In a Latam Airlines incident in March 2024, a plane apparently went into a dive when the cockpit crew briefly lost control of the aircraft. The pilots brought the plane back into control. Latam called it a “a technical event during the flight which caused a strong movement.”

A 2022 United flight event involving a sudden drop was determined to be pilot error, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. 

In 2019, Psychology Today published an article about a Delta flight, on the fear generated by these kinds of events. 

In that case, the incident was a controlled descent apparently associated with a cabin pressurization event. The article decries media sensationalizing and mischaracterization.

But there are plenty of occasions when actual turbulence, rather than equipment or human error, are involved.

Hawaiian Airlines had such an incident in December 2022, 65 miles north of Maui. The National Transportation Safety Board report said, “A cloud shot up vertically (like a smoke plume) in front of the airplane in a matter of seconds, and there was not enough time to deviate.”  

No previous flights in the area that day had reported turbulence, but the NTSB report said: “Postaccident examination of the weather in the area revealed that there was an occluded frontal system with an associated upper-level trough moving towards the Hawaiian Islands. Satellite and weather radar imagery, and lightning data depicted strong cells in the vicinity of the flight.”

An article in Smithsonian Magazine argues that climate change may be causing increases in turbulence, and therefore in aircraft-involved incidents. 

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg in May said turbulence is increasing, and that climate change is a big factor. The Smithsonian article said that technology is also improving, and will help moderate risk, but that bumpier flights may be in our future.

Many of the injuries in such incidents involve people being thrown around the aircraft. It’s a reminder to keep those seat belts fastened.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2024

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