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Intensification of winter transatlantic aviation turbulence in response to climate change

Abstract

Atmospheric turbulence causes most weather-related aircraft incidents1. Commercial aircraft encounter moderate-or-greater turbulence tens of thousands of times each year worldwide, injuring probably hundreds of passengers (occasionally fatally), costing airlines tens of millions of dollars and causing structural damage to planes1,2,3. Clear-air turbulence is especially difficult to avoid, because it cannot be seen by pilots or detected by satellites or on-board radar4,5. Clear-air turbulence is linked to atmospheric jet streams6,7, which are projected to be strengthened by anthropogenic climate change8. However, the response of clear-air turbulence to projected climate change has not previously been studied. Here we show using climate model simulations that clear-air turbulence changes significantly within the transatlantic flight corridor when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is doubled. At cruise altitudes within 50–75° N and 10–60° W in winter, most clear-air turbulence measures show a 10–40% increase in the median strength of turbulence and a 40–170% increase in the frequency of occurrence of moderate-or-greater turbulence. Our results suggest that climate change will lead to bumpier transatlantic flights by the middle of this century. Journey times may lengthen and fuel consumption and emissions may increase. Aviation is partly responsible for changing the climate9, but our findings show for the first time how climate change could affect aviation.

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Figure 1: Spatial patterns of North Atlantic flight-level winter clear-air turbulence in a changing climate.
Figure 2: Probability distributions of northern North Atlantic flight-level winter clear-air turbulence in a changing climate.
Figure 3: Will North Atlantic flight-level winter clear-air turbulence increase or decrease in a warmer climate?

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Acknowledgements

P.D.W. is financially supported through a University Research Fellowship from the Royal Society (reference: UF080256). The authors acknowledge the modelling groups, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI) and the WCRP’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling (WGCM) for their roles in making available the WCRP CMIP3 multi-model data set. Support of this data set is provided by the Office of Science, US Department of Energy. The authors thank A. Turner for facilitating access to the data set. The authors thank E. Irvine and L. Wilcox for supplying information about flight routes, which were calculated using the Aviation Environmental Design Tool (AEDT) from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

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P.D.W. and M.M.J. jointly conceived the study. P.D.W. computed the turbulence diagnostics, produced the figures and wrote the paper with input from M.M.J. The authors discussed the results and implications with each other at all stages.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Paul D. Williams.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Williams, P., Joshi, M. Intensification of winter transatlantic aviation turbulence in response to climate change. Nature Clim Change 3, 644–648 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1866

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