Tech A type of turbulence you can't see caused by climate change will cost airlines billions each year

  • Published:
24/7 Live - Subscribe to the Pulse Newsletter!

Climate change could make flying more expensive in the future due to increased turbulence, according to Paul Williams, a Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading.

Invisible turbulence, or clear-air turbulence, is different to turbulence caused by flying through clouds or a rainstorm because it can happen in conditions where visibility is clear. Invisible turbulence is generated by wind shear, or the colliding of air masses, which gets stronger at higher altitudes.

Scientists predict that wind shear is increasing, and in turn creating more turbulence, as a result of the jet stream speeding up due to climate change, Williams said.

Turbulence causes injuries to passengers, flight attendants, and crew, which could ultimately cost airlines billions of dollars globally due to the greater risk of injuries, he added.

Read the full transcript below:

"Invisible turbulence in the atmosphere is generated by what atmospheric scientists call a wind shear. It means that the higher up you go, the stronger winds blow.

So for example, if you’ve ever climbed the Eiffel Tower, you’ll know that when you’re on the ground it’s usually not very windy but as you climb up and go higher, the winds speed picks up. That’s a wind shear.

That effect increases all the way up to 10 kilometres in altitude where planes fly and it is wind shears, in the atmospheric winds that cause clear-air turbulence, and we have evidence that the jet stream is speeding up because of climate change.

So that’s increasing the wind shear, increasing the instabilities and causing more turbulence to break out.

There are a number of different ways in which turbulence costs the airlines money and of course they have to pass those costs on to the passengers. The most obvious way is injuries to passengers, flight attendants and crew. We know that there are thousands of planes every year in the USA alone encountering severe turbulence which is strong enough to hospitalise people.

If you add up all of these costs, the total cost of turbulence to the airlines is estimated to be up to $500 million a year in the USA alone and if you extrapolate that figure globally, we’re easily talking into the billions of dollars a year as being the cost of turbulence to airlines which of course gets passed onto passengers."

Produced by Jasper Pickering. Filmed by David Ibekwe. Special thanks to Joe Daunt.