Friday, June 21, 2024

Yes, turbulence is getting worse, but deaths are very rare: What to know

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  • One person is dead, and 30 are injured after a Singapore Airlines flight faced severe turbulence.
  • Turbulence is getting worse, and that trend is likely to continue because of climate change.
  • Deaths from turbulence are extremely rare.

One person is dead, and 30 are injured after a Singapore Airlines flight hit severe turbulence.

“We can confirm that there are injuries and one fatality on board the Boeing 777-300ER,” said SIA said in a statement. “There were a total of 211 passengers and 18 crew on board.”

Flight SQ321 departed from London’s Heathrow Airport on a Boeing 777-300ER on Monday and was supposed to land in Singapore, but instead was diverted to Thailand at 3:45 local time on Tuesday after requesting an emergency landing.

According to updates the airline posted on its Facebook page, the rest of the passengers, the majority of whom were from Australia, the United Kingdom and Singapore, and the crew were being evaluated and treated as needed by medical personnel at the airport.

Turbulence is getting worse, and that trend is likely to continue because of climate change. Here’s what climate and aviation experts said about the worsening turbulence trends.

What causes turbulance?

There are different kinds of turbulence, and they’re caused by different things:

  • Mountain wave turbulence, as the name suggests, happens when the wind hits a mountain and is forced upward off its blustery path. That’s why it’s common to hit some bumps when you’re flying over the Rockies on a transcontinental flight.
  • Convective turbulence is generally associated with storms and is caused by warm air rising.
  • Clear air turbulence can be caused by a number of factors and is generally harder to predict than the other two types, but it is also the most likely kind to affect aircraft. And because it’s harder to predict, it can also be harder to avoid.

Ding! Even if the seatbelt sign is off, you should stay buckled while flying. Here’s why.

Is climate change making turbulence worse?

Yes, at least with clear air turbulence.

According to Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading, there’s no clear data on how climate change is affecting mountain waves or convective turbulence, but clear air turbulence is definitely becoming more frequent and intense.

“It’s going up because of climate change,” Williams told USA TODAY last year. “The atmosphere is getting more turbulent; there will be more severe turbulence in the atmosphere.”

Thomas Guinn, chair of applied aviation sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, agreed.

“Turbulence is going to tend to become more frequent and more intense with climate change,” he said. 

See how it happens: Why is turbulence increasing? Rougher skies may be from climate change, scientists say

Both Williams and Guinn pointed out that severe turbulence is actually increasing more acutely than lighter chop.

Recent studies Williams has worked on show severe turbulence is increasing by 149% increase versus 59% for light turbulence. However, severe turbulence will likely remain very rare.

How many deaths has turbulance caused?

Deaths from turbulence are extremely rare.

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration reported 163 passengers and crew have been seriously injured by turbulence between 2009 and 2022.

More information on turbulence: Climate change is making turbulence worse, but here’s why you shouldn’t worry (too much)

Can planes withstand turbulance?

Yes, planes are designed to withstand even extreme turbulence, so it may be uncomfortable for passengers, but it almost never puts the plane itself in physical danger, according to Guinn. The bigger problems, he said, are the other complications turbulence can cause.

“If you can climb above it or go below it, that fixes things, but that costs a lot of fuel,” Guinn said. “Prolonged exposure to turbulence for a pilot is fatiguing. Pilots are going to have to deal with that as well.”

It’s tough on other parts of the aviation sector as well.

“If there’s three times as much turbulence in the atmosphere, that’s three times the obstacles you have to avoid as a pilot,” Williams said. “Every time a pilot tries to go around turbulence, it adds to the workload of air traffic controllers and pilots.

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at zwichter@usatoday.com.

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