Climate change is making the skies less friendly. Prepare for a future where you always have your seatbelt on

Fortune, By Carolyn Barber on April 4, 2023


In his early days in the business, aviation expert John Nance used to make “Tornado Alley runs,” as he and other pilots with Braniff Airlines called them. They involved multiple takeoffs and landings in places like Kansas City and Wichita on the way to Minneapolis and back, traversing a Midwest corridor in which weather conditions could become treacherous on short notice.

“There were times that you’d get these massive fronts moving laterally, west to east across the U.S., and we would be having to pick our way through them,” Nance, now an author, speaker, and ABC News aviation analyst, told me. “I’ve been in situations where I had to divert as far west as Denver to get around them coming (back) to Dallas.”

In an era of rapid climate change, those might well be the good old days. What pilots face in 2023, experts say, is a different order of challenge altogether: an increase in both the frequency and the intensity of climate-related issues, coupled with a pronounced lack of pilot training in key areas.

‘Clear-air turbulence’ is taking us by surprise

Global warming is altering the math on these issues. Over the past four decades, vertical wind shear over the North Atlantic has increased 15%, according to research. This results in more unstable air at play within the jet streams that move across the U.S., often at the same altitudes where commercial and private aircraft commonly travel–and the researchers noted that the busy transatlantic flight corridor will be similarly affected.

Several recent incidents have riveted public attention on the issue. But while turbulence, lightning strikes, and storms have always been a small piece of the air experience, that piece is growing.

A Lufthansa flight from Texas to Germany diverted to Dulles Airport earlier last month after encountering turbulence that sent seven people to hospitals. The pilot of a Hawaiian Airlines flight on which dozens were injured later noted that a cloud shot up vertically in front of the aircraft “like a smoke plume” while it was flying through smooth, clear air at 38,000 feet. A Southwest flight bound for Raleigh, N.C., had to be diverted to a South Carolina airport after violently shaking as it got as low as 1,350 feet while attempting to land in bad weather.

Clear-air turbulence, so named because it’s not part of any storm system and therefore isn’t visualized before a plane flies into it, can be wildly problematic. The planes themselves withstand the force remarkably well, but passengers and crew–especially those who aren’t wearing seat belts at the time of the encounter and get thrown around in the cabin–can be left with significant injuries and trauma. You should plan for a future in which you’ve always got your seatbelt on while flying.

Clear-air turbulence is invisible “not only to the naked eye but also to the onboard weather radar,” says Paul Williams, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading and an international expert on the subject. “It is one of the few weather phenomena that render the radar completely useless. Often, the first indication that there’s any clear-air turbulence on a flight path is when the aircraft is already flying through it.”

Those are headline-making events, but the larger record-keeping on all this is incomplete. According to data provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), only 34 domestic passengers (and 129 crew) suffered “serious turbulence injuries” between 2009 and 2022. Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), reported that turbulence accounted for more than a third of all accidents on large commercial airlines from 2009 to 2018. However, the NTSB requires airlines only to report the most serious outcomes, and the FAA does not track general incidences of turbulence.

The compounded effects of climate change

Air travel is, of course, one of the drivers of climate change in its own right. Greenhouse gas emissions from commercial air travel, which accounts for 3 to 4% of the U.S. total, are running well ahead of earlier projections. The UN estimates that global airplane emissions of carbon dioxide will triple by 2050. While the industry is beginning to make noises about turning to sustainable aviation fuel and electrified or hydrogen-powered aircraft to decarbonize the process of flying, that is a long, slow turn. In the here and now, post-pandemic air travel is on the rebound.

Bumpy air, even violently bumpy air, is not all pilots are dealing with in a climate-changed sky. Nance, the aviation expert who has written extensively on the topic, notes that the additions of CO2 and trace gases to the atmosphere have resulted in higher levels of heat transfer overall. “What that means is you energize the storms to a greater extent,” he says. “You’re going to have hotter hots, colder colds, more energetic hurricanes and typhoons and cyclonic disturbances. You’re going to have thunderstorms arising that are much more energetic.”

John Knox, who studies, teaches, and writes about atmospheric dynamics at the Univesity of Georgia, added: “The bottom line is that aviation will be affected in several different ways by climate change, and experts are concerned.”

Not all turbulence is of the clear air variety. Much of it is the result of the kinds of thunderstorms that John Nance and his Braniff colleagues long ago strove to avoid. In this supercharged atmosphere, Knox says, turbulence will increase in the vicinity of those storms, “because climate change will provide more energy thanks to more water evaporating from warmer oceans, which juices the storms.”

So, the storms are more energized, the wind shears more dramatic, and the jet streams more unstable. Lightning strikes or static discharges, like the one that struck the plane in which a family member of mine was flying several weeks ago, are going to become more common, too–they’re expected to increase by 50% in the U.S. by the end of the century, with each 1 degree Celsius of warming producing about 12% more strikes.

It all means that air travel conditions are becoming slightly more uncertain. And although experts say today’s aircraft are built to withstand heavy wind shear and can generally pass a lightning strike through and out of a plane with little residual effect, these planes don’t fly empty. They’re filled with passengers, crew members, and the pilots themselves, part of whose job it is to keep the craft out of the worst of the weather.

Are pilots ready for it?

The result? “A perfect storm kind of scenario,” says Shem Malmquist, an international Boeing 777 captain, flight instructor, and veteran accident and safety investigator. “The quality and quantity of training for pilots on weather and weather radar is–well, dismal would be the most positive thing I can say.”

“The airline has very little training to teach pilots how to avoid weather systems, how to avoid thunderstorms,” says Doug Moss, a test pilot for McDonnell Douglas and former Air Force instructor. “They don’t teach pilots how to use weather radar. I mean, the pilots pick it up on their own.”

For decades, pilots have been flying around storms or other issues. “We have aircraft radar and the FAA has their own area radar, so we can generally work around thunderstorms,” says Moss. But both Moss and Malmquist believe there’s a worrisome dynamic at work: radar technology is rapidly evolving, and pilot training isn’t keeping up with it.

“Pilots get basically no training on weather radar, or even weather (itself), after basic training,” says Malmquist, an international pilot for three decades and a visiting instructor at Florida Tech’s College of Aeronautics. “And the problem is that weather is complex, and we’re learning new things.” 

“The weather radar systems that the manufacturers are producing now are very different from what they were building 10 and 20 years ago, and there’s almost no training about how to use the new type of systems,” Moss says. “Pilots are Type-A motivated, and they’ll find the information and study it on their own, (but) the airlines certainly are not providing that training.”

In response to a series of questions about pilot training, an FAA spokesman emailed a statement that said pilots “must undergo extensive initial and recurrent training on a wide range of subjects, including the weather radar systems in their flight decks.” Meanwhile, the NTSB in 2021 pointed out the need for the industry “to improve (the) accuracy and frequency of turbulence observations,” and noted that the FAA’s guidance on turbulence-related injuries(AC 120-88A) was last updated in 2007 and concluded that it “does not contain information about the current available technologies and best practices for avoiding turbulence encounters and turbulence-related injuries.”

This is a conversation that seems likely to evolve, even as the airlines push to get more pilots through their training and into commercial cockpits. Commercial pilots require 1,500 flight hours to be certified in the U.S., a minimum threshold that was put in place in the wake of a crash in Buffalo in 2009 and reaffirmed recently despite an airline requesting the FAA to lower it. But the pilots say not much of the training that coincides with those flight hours centers around the weather technologies that are likely to become more important over the decades to come.

“As we move into a future with a more turbulent atmosphere, I am concerned about the safety of passengers and flight attendants on large commercial aircraft,” says Prof. Williams of the University of Reading.

Enhanced training on weather radar won’t solve all of that, but it certainly makes sense in a world already dealing with the escalating evolution of climate change and its effects on weather patterns.

“You’re looking at more storms, more lightning, more turbulence. And there’s clear and documented evidence statistically that it’s all happening more frequently,” says Nance. “It’s irrefutable at this point.”

Carolyn Barber, M.D. has been an emergency department physician for 25 years. Author of the book Runaway Medicine: What You Don’t Know May Kill You, she has written extensively about COVID-19 for national publications, including Fortune. Barber is co-founder of the California-based homeless work program Wheels of Change

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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