Fasten your seat belts: What you need to know about turbulence

The outbreak of a new virus, 2019-nCoV, has sickened hundreds in China and spread to at least a dozen other countries.

Fasten your seat belts: What you need to know about turbulence

Recent research shows that air turbulence has increased and this is due to climate change. This is specifically because of the elevated carbon dioxide emissions that affect air currents. Photo / Simoul alva, The New York Times

Recent incidents of turbulence in air travel have raised questions about this weather phenomenon. What we know and how to be safe.

Turbulence is a common cause of anxiety for many travellers.

On flights, you'll find your eyes squished shut and your hands clinging to the armrests to save their lives, bracing yourself for the rollercoaster ride ahead.

Recent incidents have resulted in dozens of injuries. Seven passengers were taken to hospital with minor injuries last month after a severe turbulence hit their plane as it flew above Tennessee. In December, around two dozen passengers, including an infant on a Hawaiian Airlines Flight from Phoenix to Honolulu, suffered minor injuries after the plane encountered rough air just before landing.

Recent reports have raised questions as to whether the turbulence has become more intense and frequent.

We talked to several experts to find out more about this difficult-to-predict phenomenon. What they had to say.

What is turbulence?

Turbulence, also known as turbulent air, is an unstable movement of air caused by wind changes, including jet streams, storms, and cold and warm weather fronts. The severity of the turbulence can vary, with minor to dramatic altitude and speed changes.

This can happen even when the skies are calm. It can be invisible to both the eye and the weather radar.

Turbulence is classified into four categories: mild, moderate, severe, and extreme. According to the National Weather Service, in extreme turbulence cases, the pilots may lose control and even structural damage can occur to the aircraft.

Turbulence is it increasing? If so, what is the reason?

Recent research shows that air currents are changing and turbulence has increased. This change is caused by climate change, specifically the elevated carbon dioxide emissions.

Paul Williams, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Reading, England, has been studying turbulence since more than a ten-year period.

Williams' research found that the amount of clear air turbulence at high altitudes in winter could triple. This type of turbulence is increasing at all altitudes around the globe, according to Williams.

His research indicates that in the future, we may experience bumpier flights. This could lead to more injuries for passengers and crew.

How does turbulence monitoring and measurement work?

Meteorologists use a range of algorithms, satellites, and radar systems to create detailed aviation forecasts. These include conditions like cold air, wind speeds, thunderstorms, and turbulence. They indicate where and when possible turbulence may occur.

Jennifer Stroozas is a meteorologist with the Aviation Weather Centre of the Weather Service. She called turbulence "definitely one the most difficult things to predict."

Pilots can use these forecasts and the guidance of air traffic controllers to adjust their altitude in order to avoid turbulent areas. It means that you can either fly higher or lower, depending on the forecasters' predictions of turbulence. This could result in burning more fuel.

Robert Sumwalt is a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and now runs a new aviation centre at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He stressed that it's impossible to predict or prevent all turbulence.

Sumwalt stated that 'there is always the chance of unexpected rough air'. 'Generally speaking, it won't hurt you or pull the wings of the plane off.'

Stroozas, a meteorologist, said that small aircraft are more vulnerable to the effects of wind than commercial jetliners.

How dangerous is it? How can I keep safe in turbulence conditions?

It is rare that aircraft suffer structural damage due to turbulence.

Turbulence, however, can cause serious injuries to passengers and crew. Experts have said that the best way to reduce risk is to stay seated during flights and wear your seatbelt as much as you can.

Thomas Guinn is a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He teaches applied aviation sciences.

Williams stated that in severe turbulence the vertical motion will exceed the gravity's pulling.

He said, 'You will get up from your seat.

While turbulence-related deaths are extremely rare, they do occur. According to an NTSB report, the last passenger to die on a commercial plane from turbulence was in 1997 when a United Airlines flight between Tokyo and Honolulu encountered severe turbulence above the Pacific Ocean. According to the NTSB investigation, this passenger did not wear a seatbelt and flew from her seat. She may have hit her head against the luggage bin.

A former White House aide who was aboard a business plane travelling from New Hampshire into Virginia last month died of fatal injuries that were initially attributed by the pilots to severe turbulence. A preliminary NTSB report found that the plane’s pilots had turned off the switch stabilizing it, causing the aircraft to briefly oscillate.

What about babies sitting on laps?

Children under 2 years of age are allowed to sit on the lap of an adult during a flight. However, many experts believe that this practice should not be permitted, citing dangers like turbulence.

Last month, CWA (the Association of Flight Attendants), a union that represents about 50,000 flight attendants in 19 airlines, renewed their decades-long campaign to ensure every passenger has their own seat.

Sara Nelson, president of the union, stated in an interview, that because turbulence has become'much commoner' in recent years, it is more important for children to be secured properly in child safety seats on flights.

Nelson stated that if you take the proper precautions to protect yourself from danger, it is possible to survive certain events inside the cabin.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), unexpected turbulence on planes is the main cause of injuries to children. The FAA provides detailed information about the various child restraint system types and how to install them correctly onto plane seats. Some of these products can be used on both planes and cars.

Since decades, FAA and NTSB has urged parents that they should secure their children in their own ticketsed seats or in a safety seat approved by the manufacturer. This advice is also reiterated by the American Academy of Pediatrics. These measures are not required by federal law.

This article was originally published in

The New York Times

Written by: Christine Chung

Photographs by: Simoul Alva