Airplane passengers and seat belt image

Many airplane travelers have experienced shaking trays and the sensation of a dropping stomach during turbulence. Usually the pilot warns you it’s coming so you can buckle up. But a phenomenon called clear-air turbulence can catch even the pilot by surprise.

Williams: “The radar on the plane can’t detect this kind of turbulence.”

That’s Paul Williams, professor of meteorology at the University of Reading in the U.K. He recently investigated how global warming could affect the frequency of clear air turbulence on transatlantic winter flights.

Williams: “The amount of severe turbulence, and that’s turbulence that’s strong enough to hospitalize people, could double, or even as much as treble, later this century.”

The reason is that a warmer atmosphere might cause stronger jet streams, which in turn could cause instabilities and strong wind shear.

It will not become an everyday occurrence. Even if it’s two or three times more common, severe clear air turbulence will remain rare.

But it’s still unpleasant news for people who fly a lot or are afraid of flying. Fortunately, there’s one easy thing you can do to stay safe.

Williams: “Almost no one is ever injured if they have their seat belt fastened in turbulence.”

Reporting credit: Mark Knapp/ChavoBart Digital Media.
Image graphic: Created by David McCarthy.

Daisy Simmons is a freelance writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience in research-driven storytelling. In addition to contributing to Yale Climate Connections since early 2016, she also...