Research Shows Dangerous And Costly Turbulence Is On The Increase


Fasten your seat belts. According to the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), changing weather patterns and shifting jet streams mean the next few decades are going to make flying bumpier. Already much more prevalent than it was in the 1970s, turbulence is on the increase, and research shows it is likely to continue to get stronger.

The NBAA reports that “a June 2023 research project published by the University of Reading and the American Geophysical Union revealed significant increases in clear air turbulence (CAT) over the past 40 years, an ominous indication of what’s likely to come in the future.”

Study co-author Dr. Paul Williams noted the largest increases came over the United States and the North Atlantic, with a 55 percent increase in severe-or-greater CAT in 2020 compared to 1979. “Following a decade of research showing that climate change will increase clear-air turbulence in the future, we now have evidence suggesting that the increase has already begun,” he said.

And the discomfort is likely to extend past passengers’ and pilots’ backsides and on to their wallets. According to Williams, increased turbulence “not only poses added risk of physical injury to cabin crew and passengers, but also increased operational costs and more emissions as the aviation industry works to reduce its carbon footprint.” Williams cited a 2007 study that revealed “up to two-thirds of commercial flights [within the survey window] had deviated from the most fuel-efficient altitude because of turbulence, with an average duration of 41 minutes.”

He also cited the potential for costly increases in scheduled inspections due to airframe stress—and disincentives for paying customers. “Passengers already uneasy about flying may become more unnerved by even mild encounters with turbulence,” he said.

NBAA suggests that operators use improved turbulence-detection resources available through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Aviation Weather Center (AWC) and the National Weather Service to help steer clear of the most serious turbulence. Jennifer Stroozas, warning-coordination meteorologist for NOAA’s AWC, told NBAA, “We’ve made tremendous advances over just the past few years, thanks to improved weather forecast models with more data going into [them] and better understanding of the science in these models. That results in better forecast information across the board, including when evaluating the potential for turbulent conditions.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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  1. We are flying many more high altitude jet aircraft by far than the 70’s and as we introduce even more jets into the stratosphere with newbie pilots, we will continue to get more reports of CAT, but isn’t that obvious? Maybe we need more Cubs.

    • I was wondering about that myself. Aren’t we flying more than 55% more than what the airlines did in the 70’s? How about RVSM rules high altitude separation. It is 1000ft now but used to be 2000ft, just like flights above fl410.

  2. Of course there is more turbulence. When contrail conditions apply I go outside and count 35 jets weighing over 100 tonnes each, in sight at 10,000 metres or thereabout, all going at 900 km an hour. Stand by the side of a busy road and you get buffeted by the traffic, it is a wonder that there is any clear air up there at all.

  3. The fact of the matter is that the skies are becoming more crowded with airplanes coming and going. One only has to look at Radar-24 to see how densely the skies are covered with airliners and corporate airplanes. Behind all these airplanes, much like speedboats and ships, there is severe waves formed in the air. So, it is Very important to keep the seat belts fastened at all times. Cabin crews, walking up and down, pushing heavy carts, attending to unruly passengers, are at risk of getting seriously hurt, not just from the passengers but from the turbulence of a passing jetliner that came too close, because the folks up front, in the nose cone, were not paying attention outside. Wake turbulence can kill you, and your plane, in a hurry.
    Mark-The problems of cabin crew safety is for another article.

  4. I believe that many posters have the same idea. A lot of this new turbulence is simply other aircraft. The days that the controller says the rides are bad everywhere are about the same as back in the 80s. Now days, with many more aircraft following defined paths, you can lay the winds over your ADS-b traffic data and see where your “turbulence” is coming from. Often I will parallel offset a mile or two and the ride smooths out. I usually do but you don’t even need to request it.

  5. I am flabbergasted at how many posters do not have a realistic grasp of the difference between transient wake turbulence and infinitely more powerful chronic atmospheric instability. All the airplanes in the world flying and disturbing the air at the same time could not induce what this article is talking about.

  6. I’m not sure if an air pocket has anything to do with turbulence, but I once hit one so hard I dropped 1K on the altimeter.

    Trust me. That hurts. I was in Eastern Colorado, and didn’t see or hear any traffic at around 6K feet.

  7. You’re surely right, Mr.Bill K. The precedent comments fail to understand the truly matter that the article intents to deal and to give knowledge of the reality of the actual change in atmospheric stability. Quite sad.

  8. The report used the Coupled Model Inter-comparison Project phase 3 (CMIP3) coupled atmosphere-ocean climate models, with a grid resolution of 2.5° × 2.0° as well as the CMIP6 models. These models are notoriously inaccurate. For example, these models predicted the North Pole would be devoid of ice by 2013. Explaining the models, a climate scientist said that predicting future weather was a kin to predicting where a cork would be in a stream a mile down stream. In other words, nearly impossible.

  9. This is all very complicated and I think people may be getting tunnel vision, like dogs chasing cars. Atmospheric dynamics are an incredibly complex thing, as is shown by the certainty of weather forecasts and seasonal storm outlooks, as a Floridian I witness this one year after year. Research must take all confounding factors into account. How much of this is because more airplanes are flying in more turbulent areas as coverage and traffic density constantly increases? How much of it is running into persistent wake turbulence in crowded skies? How much of it is increased passenger injury reports; rarely do I see a flight attendant tell someone to sit down when they get up during a seatbelt sign on phase of flight anymore, planes are more crowded and cramped than ever, and even little stuff like the fact that I keep hearing “rough air” in my in flight announcements instead of the more authoritative “turbulence”. How much of it is because of generally more cavalier attitude toward flying, and risk compensation in the face of a dearth of data such as the EFB and PIREPs? I am concerned that we’re getting tunnel vision because of warming trends and are going to start ignoring confounding factors because of fixation. If there truly is an issue with rising turbulence related injury and damage and not simply an increase in sensational headlines about it, example: see the overall violent crime statistic trends in the past few decades vs how safe people “feel” because of reporting on it.