Turbulence on your flights is going to get even worse, and you have climate change to blame

Dristi Sharma
Dristi SharmaMay 06, 2023 | 15:00

Turbulence on your flights is going to get even worse, and you have climate change to blame

Though the chances of us getting seriously injured during turbulence are incredibly minuscule, data shows, From 2009 to 2021, there were 30 passengers and 116 crew members seriously injured. Photo: Getty Images

I'm an anxious flyer. No matter how many times I fly, my heart will always beat a little faster during takeoffs and landings. I will always have 10 extra movies and songs saved in downloads so that I have plenty of content to keep my mind distracted; and I specifically choose reading or watching material that address the common fears of flying. Say, a pilot explaining why 'turbulence is normal', or tips on how to manage anxiety while flying. 


However, lately, travelling on even a mere two-hour flight also seems like a task, and it doesn't help my anxiety. It is not just me, though. Turbulence (or heavy turbulence) is becoming quite a common phenomenon, and almost everyone who flies regularly seems to have noticed it.

In a recent viral video, people were seen screaming and praying during a bad patch of turbulence. 

Take a look at the video: 

I was in a similar situation recently, while flying on a regular commercial flight from Delhi to Dibrugarh, Assam. The turbulence that hit our plane did not seem normal. It went on for almost half an hour, and my eyes darted towards a cabin crew member, who was smiling.

Looking at her smile, I (involuntarily) asked (in broken anxious English), "Why such turbulence? Are we safe?" 

She replied in a calm voice, "Everything is fine, Ma'am. This kind of turbulence is getting very normal these days, because of the weather, and climate change." 


 After that, although I felt comparatively calmer, I had a lot of questions on my mind. 

What does data say?

  • Chances of us getting seriously injured during turbulence are incredibly minuscule.
  • Data says that from 2009 to 2021, there were 30 passengers and 116 crew members seriously injured because of turbulence; out of the millions of people who fly every year, according to Federal Aviation Administration. 
  • According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), serious injuries during flights are those that require hospitalisation for over 48 hours, or those that result in fractured bones, severe muscle or tendon damage, harm to internal organs, or second- or third-degree burns.
  • However, minor injuries are not required to be reported by airlines, leading to a potential underreporting of the total number of injuries that occur during flights.

Can turbulence injure you?

A 2021 report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that the majority of passengers who suffered serious injuries from turbulence were not wearing their seatbelts; often because they were using the restroom or walking up and down the aisle.

Injuries can also occur due to luggage falling out of overhead bins and hitting passengers, people stumbling or being thrown into seats or the sides of the cabin, or food carts colliding with people.


The same NTSB report also revealed that crew members are commonly (in most cases) injured while preparing the cabin for landing or performing cabin service, such as serving food and drinks or collecting trash. 

But before we get into how climate change has impacted turbulence, take a look at

What actually is turbulence 

FAA describes turbulence as air movement that normally cannot be seen and often occurs unexpectedly

What causes turbulence?  

  • It can be created by many different conditions, including atmospheric pressure, jet streams, air around mountains, cold or warm weather fronts or thunderstorms. 

  • Turbulence can even occur when the sky appears to be clear.
  • In short, there is no real way to forecast this phenomenon or see it on a map.  

How are climate change and turbulence related?

Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading in the UK, confirms that there has been an increase in turbulence during flights.

In a research paper published in 2019, he co-authored findings which showed this to be true on a busy aviation route. 

Williams explains that clear-air turbulence, a type of turbulence that is not visible and is caused by wind shear, has become 15% stronger than in the 1970s due to climate change. 

This increase in wind shear can lead to atmospheric disturbances similar to the rippling or even raging waves in a surging river.
- Paul Williams, University of Reading

As a result, Williams concludes that this trend certainly implies more turbulence.

Williams predicts that wind shear will continue to strengthen in the coming decades, potentially causing severe turbulence to double or triple in intensity.

Last updated: May 06, 2023 | 15:00
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