Most travelers have experienced it while flying. Turbulence can cause slight discomfort, dizziness, and sometimes even accidents in the cabin. The word turbulence derives from the Latin turbulentĭa and refers to the condition of that which is turbulent (disorderly or agitated). An aircraft undergoes turbulence when it moves violently due to changes in the speed and direction of air currents. When the air particles become disordered, disturbances appear, usually in the form of windmills.
Turbulence is produced by different meteorological phenomena. The most common causes are cloud formations (more precisely: vertically developing clouds), thunderstorms and air currents in mountain ranges or jet streams. Wind shear is another meteorological phenomenon that can affect flight and is a rather abrupt variation in wind intensity and direction.
Another type of mishap that can be experienced during flight is turbulence generated directly by the aircraft itself. It occurs when large masses of air collide with the ends of the aircraft’s wings.
On night flights or early morning flights, turbulence is rare, since air currents are milder at that time of day. On the other hand, if we fly during the day we may feel movement during the flight. It usually occurs at low altitudes that are typical of short duration trips, but some long-haul flights are not exempt. Turbulence is likely to occur if we fly over India or the Middle East.
According to CNN, roughly 65,000 aircraft suffer moderate turbulence every year in the US, and about 5,500 run into severe turbulence. Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading in the UK, told CNN that climate change is modifying turbulence. He started studying the subject in 2013 and found that severe turbulence could double or triple in the coming decades.
The seat belt sign will be switched on a lot more, unfortunately for passengers.Paul Williams, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading
“Clear air turbulence”, which is a new type of turbulence, arrives suddenly and is hard to avoid. According to the US National Transportation Safety Board, NTSB, between 2009 and 2018, the flight crew had no warning in about 28% of turbulence-related accidents.
Williams’ analysis predicts that clear-air turbulence will increase significantly around the globe by the period 2050-2080, in particular along the busiest flight routes. The strongest type of turbulence will increase the most, says the scientist. “Typically, on a transatlantic flight, you might expect 10 minutes of turbulence. I think that in a few decades it may increase to 20 minutes or to half an hour,” said Williams to CNN.
Airplanes are designed to withstand even the most aggressive turbulence. Pilots, besides being prepared to face these adversities, have tricks to deal with turbulence. Reducing speed and changing altitude are some of them. Because nature is unpredictable and meteorology can vary from one moment to another, there are forecasts and sensors installed in some cockpits that serve to detect turbulence and its intensity.
Inside an aircraft there are factors that make turbulence more or less present. For example, the seats located in the center of gravity of the aircraft and in the wings notice these alterations less, while those located in the tail of the aircraft are the ones that notice them more. It should also be taken into account that the larger the plane and the seat, the less the turbulence will be noticed. In case of severe turbulence the seat belt can save lives or help prevent bruises caused by the movement of the plane.