Last March the Washington Post reported that climate change was raising flight turbulence risks. Earlier this month, the World Economic Forum repeated the story in a blog stating that “erratic” clear air turbulence is expected to increase by two or three times in the coming decades. Climate change is said to be making flights a lot bumpier. Not considered worthy of mention in either tale was a caveat pointing out that there has been no increase in accidents or injuries due to turbulence over the last 30 years. During this period, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, passenger numbers have quadrupled, meaning there has been a relative decline in harmful turbulence activity.
So where does all this deliberately alarmist guff come from? Both stories referenced the work of Professor Paul Williams of Reading University. He suggests that atmospheric dynamics have changed significantly since scientists first observed them via satellite data in the late 1970s. Using climate models and the RCP8.5 scenarios, he forecasts huge increase in clear air turbulence. Note the use of RCP8.5, the most extreme IPCC climate scenario along with the later variant SSP5-8.5. It assumes high greenhouse gas emissions causing 4-5C temperature rises within less than 80 years. Few scientists believe these climate pathways are remotely plausible, and even the IPCC refers to them as “low likelihood”. These reservations, however, are not shared with politicians, nor with the IPCC’s trusted messengers in the press.