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Does the Future Hold More Turbulence?

Scientists may have some bad news for anyone who loves Europe and hates turbulence. A study from researchers in the UK suggests that planes flying across the North Atlantic are already feeling the effects of stronger winds, and that by mid-century, passengers will likely feel even stronger and more frequent turbulence.

To add insult to injury, not only could increased turbulence make for more white-knuckle flights, it could also drive up the cost of travel. In this BBC article, researcher Dr. Paul Williams explains, “It’s certainly plausible that if flights get diverted more to fly around turbulence rather than through it then the amount of fuel that needs to be burnt will increase.”

To reach their conclusions, the authors simulated likely changes to high-altitude air changes in a climate with increased carbon dioxide. Based on their findings, they estimated that transatlantic turbulence could “increase by between 10% and 40%, and the amount of airspace likely to contain significant turbulence by between 40% and 170%.” In the scenario, the probability of moderate turbulence, defined as strong enough to knock over drinks and make it difficult to walk, would increase by about 11 percent.

Based on these predictions, I’ve come up with some easy-to-remember ground rules for flying the North America-Europe route in the coming years:  Drink fast, medicate accordingly, and take the seat-belt sign seriously.

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