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Turbulent Skies: How Climate Change is Shaking Up Aviation


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The aviation industry faces a turbulent future as it grapples with the dual challenges of climate change and its own substantial environmental impact. The skies, once a symbol of limitless freedom and progress, are now becoming increasingly unpredictable due to the effects of global warming. As climate change intensifies, its impact on aviation and vice versa cannot be ignored.

Turbulent Skies Ahead

A decade-long study by the University of Reading has revealed a significant increase in clear air turbulence, particularly along Atlantic routes. The research shows that turbulence has increased by 55% between 1979 and 2020. This rise is attributed to changes in wind speed at high altitudes, driven by warmer air resulting from carbon emissions. Isabel Smith, one of the study’s authors, points out that “the culprit behind the newly turbulent skies is climate change,” and warns that the problem will only worsen as global temperatures continue to rise.

Professor Paul Williams from the same university forecasts that air turbulence, especially in the northern hemisphere, could “triple” in the coming decades. Changes in the hot and cold air dynamics that affect the Atlantic Jetstream are making it less stable, contributing to the increasing frequency and severity of turbulence.

The Invisible Threat

Clear air turbulence is particularly concerning because it is invisible and unpredictable, making it difficult for pilots to avoid. This type of turbulence occurs at high altitudes where aircraft typically cruise in smooth air, and its sudden occurrence can cause significant disruption. Although aircraft are designed to withstand turbulence, the increased frequency leads to greater wear and tear, costing the industry millions in repairs annually. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Centre for Atmospheric Research, about 65,000 aircraft experience turbulence each year, leading to injuries primarily among cabin crew and passengers.

Aviation’s Carbon Footprint

The aviation industry itself is a significant contributor to climate change. In 2019, commercial aviation consumed 95 billion barrels of fuel, accounting for approximately 8% of all global fuel use, according to Bloomberg NEF research. This figure is projected to rise to 15 million barrels a day by 2050. The European Commission has highlighted that a round-trip flight from Lisbon to New York leaves a carbon footprint equivalent to heating a home for an entire year.

Aviation accounts for over 13% of all transport emissions and, if considered a country, would rank among the top ten emitters globally. Despite this, the industry has made strides in reducing emissions per passenger by 24% between 2005 and 2017 through improved engine efficiency and the retirement of older aircraft.

Innovations and Future Prospects

Modern advancements are making aircraft more fuel-efficient. Newer engines, like the high bypass engines, are designed to be quieter and more efficient, even though they appear larger. For instance, the Boeing 737 Max boasts a 20% increase in efficiency over previous models, achieved through extensive design innovations.

Experimental technologies and alternative fuels are also being explored. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and electric aircraft are in various stages of development and testing. However, widespread adoption of these technologies is still years away. In the meantime, regulations and industry standards continue to evolve to mitigate the environmental impact of aviation.

Mitigation Strategies and Regulations

The European Union aims to reduce transport emissions by 90% by 2050, with aviation playing a crucial role in achieving this target. This involves not only technological advancements but also operational changes such as optimizing flight paths, improving air traffic management, and enhancing fuel efficiency through better aircraft design.

Aviation industry

The aviation industry stands at a crossroads, facing the dual challenge of mitigating its environmental impact while adapting to the increasingly severe consequences of climate change. The future of aviation will depend heavily on continued innovation, stricter regulations, and global cooperation to ensure that flying remains a safe and sustainable mode of transport. As the industry navigates these turbulent times, it must balance the demands of economic efficiency with the urgent need for environmental responsibility.

Wasim Qadri
Wasim Qadri
Islamabad based Senior Journalist, TV Show Host, Media Trainer, can be follow on twitter @jaranwaliya

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