24 Sep 2016

Shakes on a plane

From This Way Up, 12:05 pm on 24 September 2016
Turbulence in the tip vortex from an airplane wing

Turbulence in the tip vortex from an airplane wing Photo: (By NASA Langley Research Center (NASA-LaRC), Edited by Fir0002 Publc Domain)

News that the rate of serious mid-air turbulence is increasing will not be welcomed by many air passengers or by the airlines themselves, with estimates that in the US alone damage, delays and disruptions caused by turbulence cost more than US$500 million every year.

Paul Williams studies the air patterns that cause turbulence. He says that less than one percent of the earth's atmosphere contains serious turbulence at any one time, but the incidence of turbulence is rising rapidly. And although airplanes are built to withstand extreme turbulence, climate change could be at least partly to blame.

Listen to the story 10 min 20 sec

A 2006 study by the US Federal Aviation Administration found that the number of accidents caused by turbulence more than doubled between 1982 and 2003 (and that's after adjusting for increased air traffic). Meanwhile, Williams says that since 1980 the number of serious injuries caused by turbulence has also doubled.

Dr Paul Williams

Dr Paul Williams Photo: (University of Reading, UK)

He claims that climate change is a major contributing factor as higher carbon dioxide levels at ground level can swiftly translate into higher temperatures and disruptions to jet stream wind patterns in flight lanes 9km above the ground.

With a short-term reduction in carbon dioxide levels looking unlikely, he's hoping that cheaper detection technology means that airlines invest in better turbulence forecasting tools, including using reflected ultraviolet light to detect invisible clear air turbulence.

The best advice? Passengers should keep their seatbelts fastened at all times, as serious injuries typically involve flight crew or other people moving around the cabin.

"If you keep your seatbelt fastened that's the number one thing you can do to virtually guarantee your safety."

Paul Williams is the Royal Society University Research Fellow in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading.