In a tragic incident on a Singapore Airlines flight from London to Singapore, a 73-year-old man lost his life, and more than 70 other passengers were injured. This rare but severe event has raised concerns about the causes of such turbulence during flights and whether climate change could be contributing to more frequent and intense turbulence.

The ill-fated flight on May 20 experienced a sudden plunge of over 1800 meters, causing passengers and belongings to be thrown up to the cabin ceiling. This marked the first fatal incident for the airline in the past 24 years.

“Strong turbulence turns you into a shell,” says atmospheric researcher Paul Williams from the University of Reading in the UK. “For those who are not fastened with seat belts, it would be like an attraction without any protection – it would be frightening,” he adds.

What causes turbulence in airplanes?

Most flights encounter turbulence to some degree. Near the ground, strong winds around airports can lead to turbulence during take-off or landing. At higher altitudes, upward and downward air movements in thunderclouds can result in light to severe turbulence. “No one likes to fly through a storm,” says Williams.

Air flow rising over mountain ranges can also trigger turbulence. “When the air ascends over the mountain, the plane may experience turbulence,” Williams explains. Additionally, turbulence is often found at the boundaries of jet streams, powerful air currents encircling the globe. Turbulence occurring outside of clouds is known as “clear air turbulence.” Williams mentions that determining the exact type of turbulence that caused the Singapore Airlines incident may take several weeks. “There was a storm in the vicinity previously, but conditions were also suitable for clear air turbulence – further investigation is required,” he notes.

Is climate change causing more frequent and intense turbulence?

According to atmospheric researcher Jung-Hong Kim from Seoul National University, climate change is indeed making turbulence more frequent and severe. A study conducted by Williams and his team last year revealed a significant increase in clear air turbulence from 1979 to 2020. Over the North Atlantic, the occurrence of severe clear air turbulence rose by 55%. Similar trends have been observed worldwide. This escalation is likely linked to climate change, which strengthens the jet streams responsible for turbulence.

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