Climate change could nearly triple airplane turbulence in the next decades, study says

Researchers: Severe turbulence on transatlantic flights may go up by 180 percent

Flights over the north Atlantic may experience as much as 180 percent more severe turbulence, or in-flight bumpiness stronger than gravity and able to shake passengers in a plane’s cabin, according to the study, published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal. Flights over North America may experience an additional 110 percent, and flights over Europe up to 160 percent more.

“What air travelers can expect is to be confined to their seat for a lot longer in the future, because the seat belt sign will have to be on for two times or maybe three times longer,” Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading in the U.K. and the lead author of the study, told ABC News.

Previous research has shown that clear-air turbulence, which occurs without a visual warning like clouds or thunderstorms and is usually at high altitudes, is on the rise. But scientists had only zeroed in on transatlantic flights traveling at about 39,000 feet in the winter.

This study, using multiple computer climate models, found that turbulence is on the rise worldwide, year-round and at different altitudes.

Focusing on the invisible clear-air turbulence, researchers found that global temperature changes would lead to rougher, more frequent air pockets at higher altitudes in the jet streams -- narrow bands of powerful winds tens of thousands of feet above the Earth’s surface.

The study authors say that turbulence is one of the largest causes of weather-related aviation accidents and clear-air turbulence has been found to account for about 24 percent of weather-related accidents. Turbulence is also one of the main causes of flight-attendant injuries, they added.

More turbulence in the future could lead to an increase in air passenger and flight-attendant injuries, unless scientists’ ability to forecast turbulence improves, Williams said.

"I think we’ll see more injuries in the future, even if the number of people flying is constant, which of course it’s not," he said. "That’s going up, too."

Since many of the planes that will be used by 2050 haven't yet been built, researchers say aircraft design and turbulence detection technology could help reduce the effects on passengers of the future.