Put the backpack under the seats, fasten the seat belts and put the phone in airplane mode. This is how many summer vacations start. The plane takes off between passengers who fell asleep within seconds of being seated and others clutching at the armrests to calm their nerves, and after a few minutes, everything seems to be fine. People get up and the hosts start selling all kinds of food and stuff to try and make the trip a little less long. Until the pilot turns on the seat belt sign again and tells everyone to go back to their seats because the plane is in turbulence. These accidents – which, while annoying, hardly represent a safety risk to passengers – have intensified in recent decades. the case? Again, it is about climate change.
“We notice it more often since we flew again after the pandemic. In the middle of summer it is very common for heavy turbulence to occur after three o’clock in the afternoon, when the highest temperatures are recorded, ”admits Ruben Gonzalez, professional pilot and flight instructor at Aeroclub Barcelona Sabadell. According to an analysis by the University of Reading in the UK, clear air turbulence, which occurs most frequently at high altitudes, could triple by the end of the century. After analyzing air traffic over the North Atlantic, one of the busiest routes in the world, the study shows that the total annual duration of severe turbulence — the third strongest type, on a scale of degrees mild, moderate, severe and severe — has increased by 55% in the past 40 years, from 17.7 hours in 1979 to 24.7 in 2020.
And the research suggests that in coming years the number of crashed flights could increase, leading to more injuries to passengers and crew who, if they don’t sit up when the plane gets caught in unexpected turbulence and don’t wear seat belts, could get hit towards the ceiling. This does not mean that fatal accidents – which are rare in the case of air travel – will increase. “Airplanes are designed to withstand extreme conditions, the safety margins are very wide. It’s still rare that they suffer structural damage due to turbulence,” says Gonzalez, who has been in the skies for a decade.
However, the increase in turbulence also carries an economic cost to airlines. The growing disruptions are costing the industry between $150 million and $500 million. [130 y 450 millones de euros] annually in the United States alone. Researcher Mark Prosser, an atmospheric scientist and co-author of the study, warns that every minute spent traveling through turbulence increases the wear and tear of the aircraft, as well as the risk of injury to those inside.
as a result of high temperatures
To understand the role of climate change, it is first necessary to explain when and why these episodes occur. Turbulence is unstable atmospheric movement caused by changes in wind speed and direction, such as storms or hot or cold weather fronts. However, turbulence is not always caused by bad weather, but it can also occur when the sky appears calm and cloudless, as with clear weather turbulence. “They are what planes experience when they are flying in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. They are not visible to the human eye, but they also escape radar,” explains aviation meteorologist Benito Fuentes.
During these types of trajectories, pilots take advantage of jet streams—strong, intense atmospheric flows that lie at the boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere—to travel faster and use less fuel. This allows, for example, that transoceanic flights be shorter when traveling from America to Europe. However, it is precisely near these currents when there is a strong change in wind direction, which goes from flowing vertically to doing so horizontally, and this causes turbulence.
C “The atmosphere works like a pot filled with water. If you are not in a hurry and heat it slowly, it will heat up without causing any problems. But if you put it in full force, it starts to pop and jump. Like a pot, the atmosphere also heats up from below, explains César Musso, professor of environmental engineering at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, and at higher temperatures, the greater the changes in currents and the chances of suffering from turbulence.
Jerks and choppy flights aren’t the only drawbacks of climate change when it comes to flying. High temperatures can also affect the two most sensitive phases of every flight: takeoff and landing. The hotter it is, the less dense the air is, and when the air is less dense, planes take longer to take off. In other words, it means they need a longer runway — and not all airports meet these requirements — and more fuel, which in turn means more pollution.
The problem does not appear to be resolved at this time. Commercial flights, which are responsible for a large portion of carbon dioxide emissions, are becoming more dangerous due to global warming. But in order to continue to meet demand, they will have to increase their polluting footprint to counteract complications from rising temperatures, especially during the summer. “If turbulence becomes severe in the future, aircraft can fly away from the jet stream, but this will increase travel time, fuel use and greenhouse emissions. It is albedo that bites its tail,” Prosser concludes.
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