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Science Behind the Air Turbulence & Why Climate Change is Making It Worse?

Having felt air turbulence in the middle of a flight or hearing it from someone’s experience, did your mind drive straight to its reason? Did you wonder about the power of air? Well, the invisible entity holds loads of power and potential.

Understanding the science behind air turbulence uncovers a fascinating interplay of factors, from wind patterns and temperature differences to air pressure gradients. Let’s discover!

What is Air Turbulence?

Turbulence is defined as the chaotic and random movement of air. As we experience the linear movement of wind or air around us, the high altitudes offer a similar situation, allowing a safe mode of transportation through flight. However, the occurrence of turbulence disrupts the stated smooth and linear flow of air. It results in changes in airflow witnessed differently at each location and time. While generally, it is manageable, the impact depends on the intensity of turbulence. 

What is the Science Behind It?

The occurrence of air turbulence involves science. It can occur due to one of different reasons, such as thunderstorms, the presence of tall structures and jet streams.

Air turbulence Due to Thunderstorm

The thunderstorm is marked by strong movement of air in the vertical direction, i.e., rise and descent of air. It is based on the property of convection experienced in liquids and gases. The thunderstorm occurs due to the rapid movement of air from the warm and moist area that comes in contact with colder air.

The moisture from warm air condenses to release a large amount of heat. The accumulation of this heat results in the formation of atmospheric waves. It has the capacity to move the aeroplane up and down. The movement of hot air occurs due to lower density and high energy of molecules in the warm air.

Air Turbulence Due to Tall Structures

The tall structures include mountains or very tall man-made buildings. These result in mechanical turbulence experienced during flights. The air generally flows over the mountains in a wave-like pattern, thus forming a ‘mountain wave.’ It results in the generation of swirls of air known as eddies. These waves can be experienced over large distances from the mountains and hold the potential to impact or disrupt the airflow, leading to bumps or turbulence in flight.

Air Turbulence Due to Jet Streams

Pilots and flight passengers also experience turbulence even in seemingly clear air. This phenomenon is known as Clear Air Turbulence (CAT). While the air seems uniformly flowing, it comprises two different masses of air moving at different speeds. One is slow-paced, while the other is high-speed wind. An example of high-speed winds is jet streams. They are present between the troposphere and the stratosphere.

These jet streams merge with slow-moving air, resulting in the formation of eddies that lead to instability of the plane. The swift changes in wind speed are commonly referred to as wind shears. The high levels of wind shear result in the air turbulence experienced in clear air. Further, these are mostly unpredictable.

What is Turbulence Intensity?

The air turbulence can be categorised into distinct categories. The classification depends on the nature of initiation and the level of air stability. Following are the types of turbulence based on intensity:

Light Turbulence: It leads to the minimal bumpiness felt by the passengers. They may feel strain against their flights.

Moderate Turbulence: It results in higher intensity compared to light turbulence but is manageable by the pilots. The passengers here may witness the movement of non-restrained objects on the flight.

Severe Turbulence: It is marked by the large and abrupt changes in airspeed. The flight may lose control for some moments, and passengers feel forced violently against their seatbelts.

Extreme Turbulence: In this scenario, the aeroplane is completely out of control and is tossed by the wind. The plane may experience structural damage.

How Climate Change is Making It Worse?

In the past few years, the proof of global warming has become more evident and easy to spot. The same is true in the case of air turbulence, which is also influenced by global warming. As per the experts, the clear air turbulence is expected to increase by upto 200% by the year 2050. The phenomenon is more frequently known to occur in the pre-monsoon season in India.

Global warming has increased the spread of equatorial regions of the globe. Thus, the frequency, intensity and location of jet streams have increased and changed. The result is the experience of jet streams and, subsequently, turbulence in areas where it wasn’t witnessed earlier.

The intensity of thunderstorms is also likely to be increased owing to global warming. With higher temperatures, the warmer air will hold more moisture and hence will lead to higher condensation, releasing larger air masses. The subsequent result will be more turbulence due to thunderstorms.

Concluding Thoughts!

Air turbulence is an unpredictable phenomenon caused by various factors with varying intensities. Further, it can impact flights and passengers differently. While turbulence is generally not dangerous, understanding the science behind it provides valuable insights into its causes and occurrences. This knowledge can help passengers feel more secure and informed when experiencing turbulence. It also alleviates concerns and enhances the overall flight experience.

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Q 1. State the recent example of air turbulence experienced by the flight.

Ans. On May 21, 2024, the Singapore Airlines flight heading from London to Singapore experienced severe turbulence. The Boeing 777 flight had to make an emergency landing in Bangkok. The turbulence led to 1 casualty and injury to more than 100 people.

Q 2. What are the characteristics of clear air turbulence?

Ans. The clear air turbulence is marked in occurrence in patches, changes in speed, transitory, higher frequency during winter and lower frequency during summer. It is also 20 miles wide and 50 miles long.

Q 3. Is turbulence experienced more frequently at night?

Ans. As higher wind speeds and storms are more common during the daytime, the nights and early mornings are safer to avoid turbulence.

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