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Fatalities and serious injuries from turbulence are rare, but climate change is making it worse

Fatalities and serious injuries from turbulence are rare, but climate change is making it worse

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Turbulence is set to get worse because of climate change.

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Last week, turbulence hit a Singapore Airlines flight from London, resulting in one death and several injuries.

Then this weekend, just a few days later, a Qatar Airways flight from Qatar to Dublin was hit by turbulence, leaving six passengers and six crew members injured.

So what’s going on? Should passengers be worried?

Fatalities and serious injuries from turbulence are thankfully very rare. Flight crews can often predict bad weather and rough air in advance and are trained to deal with the effects.

How dangerous is turbulence on a flight?

“Turbulence fatalities on commercial flights are fortunately very rare, but have sadly increased by one today,” Dr Paul Williams, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading tells Euronews Travel.

“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.

It is also difficult to predict when it will hit because it is caused by small-scale eddies that are too localised for most weather models to calculate.

Turbulence is the primary cause of non-fatal injuries to passengers and crew, according to the International Air Transport Association.

But deaths and severe injuries on large aircraft do not occur often.

Between 2009 and 2021, 146 passengers and crew were seriously hurt in incidents of turbulence, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

In December 2022, 20 people were hospitalised after turbulence on a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Phoenix to Honolulu.

In March 2023, a passenger died after severe turbulence hit the business jet she was travelling on.

Last August, 11 people required hospitalisation after a Delta flight encountered rough air on its descent into Atlanta.

The injuries reportedly included lacerations, broken bones, head wounds and loss of consciousness, mainly due to passengers not wearing their seatbelts.

“It is not for nothing that airlines recommend keeping seat belts loosely fastened throughout a flight be it long or short,” John Strickland, a general aviation expert, told the BBC.

Because they have to be on their feet for longer than passengers, flight attendants are the most vulnerable on a plane – in fact, they are 24 times more likely to be seriously injured.

Turbulence is getting worse because of climate change

Last year, a study by meteorologists at the University of Reading in the UK found that skies are up to 55 per cent bumpier than four decades ago due to climate change.

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Warmer air resulting from carbon dioxide emissions is altering the air currents in the jet stream, exacerbating clear-air turbulence in the North Atlantic and globally.

At a typical point over the North Atlantic, one of the world’s busiest flight routes, the total annual duration of severe turbulence increased by 55 per cent between 1979 and 2020, the scientists found.

The team found that severe clear-air turbulence increased from 17.7 hours in 1979 to 27.4 hours in 2020 for an average point over the North Atlantic.

Moderate turbulence in the area increased by 37 per cent from 70.0 to 96.1 hours, and light turbulence went up 17 per cent from 466.5 to 546.8 hours.

While the North Atlantic has experienced the largest increases, the new study found that other busy flight routes over the United States, Europe, the Middle East and the South Atlantic have also seen a significant rise in turbulence.

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“We should be investing in improved turbulence forecasting and detection systems to prevent the rougher air from translating into bumpier flights in the coming decades,” says Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading, who co-authored the study.

“Airlines will need to start thinking about how they will manage the increased turbulence, as it costs the industry $150 to $500 million [€134 to €465 million] annually in the United States alone,” says Mark Prosser, a meteorologist at the University of Reading who led the study.

“Every additional minute spent travelling through turbulence increases wear-and-tear on the aircraft, as well as the risk of injuries to passengers and flight attendants.”



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