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Atlantic air travel to set pulses racing

There’s nothing quite like turbulence to trigger an adrenaline rush in the average airline passenger.  And according to climate scientists, changes to air flow in the upper atmosphere will cause more and stronger turbulence above the Atlantic Ocean in future:

“It is predicted there will be more and more incidents of severe clear-air turbulence, which typically comes out of the blue with no warning, occurring in the near future as climate change takes its effect in the stratosphere.

“There has already been a steady rise in incidents of severe turbulence affecting flights over the past few decades. Globally, turbulence causes dozens of fatalities a year on small private planes and hundreds of injuries to passengers in big jets. And as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere keep on rising, so will the numbers of incidents.”

Robin McKie in the Guardian gives a flavour of what transatlantic air travellers can look forward to:

“United Airlines Flight 880 was carrying more than 200 passengers from Houston, Texas, to London’s Heathrow airport two weeks ago when it was battered by turbulence that threw people on to the cabin ceiling. Twenty-three people were injured. ‘We were flying along as smooth as can be and then were just slapped massively from the top as if someone had torpedoed us,’ one passenger told journalists.  The aircraft, a Boeing 767-300, made an emergency landing at Shannon airport and the injured were taken to University Hospital, Limerick. No one was seriously hurt but all went through a terrifying experience and one, say experts, which will increasingly affect flights.”

This type of turbulence – “clear air turbulence” – which involves different layers of air moving at different speeds is a particular problem because it cannot be seen in advance.  According to McKie, engineers are working on sensors that use reflected ultraviolet light to detect turbulence.  But at present, these are more expensive than the costs incurred by air companies.  So for now the best advice to transatlantic air passengers is to keep your seatbelt fastened throughout the flight.

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