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Singapore flight chaos: What is clean air turbulence and when does it become dangerous?

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NEW DELHI: The death of a British passengers and injuries to many other people on board a Singapore Airlines flight that encountered severe turbulence on Tuesday have brought attention to the risks of flying through unstable air. While the exact cause of the 73-year-old man’s death is currently being investigated, authorities mentioned that he might have had a heart attack.
Experts indicated that there are considerable safety risks that in-flight turbulence presents to airline passengers and crews, drawing from witness reports, the high number of injuries, and the sudden descent of the aircraft.
Turbulence-related fatalities are rare, but numerous injuries have been reported over time. Meteorologists and aviation analysts have observed an increase in reports of turbulence and have pointed out the potential effects of climate change on flying conditions.
Most incidents of planes encountering bumpy air are minor. Airlines have continuously improved to decrease accident rates caused by turbulence over time.
What is turbulence?
Turbulence is air that is unstable and moves in a way that cannot be predicted. Most people link turbulence with severe storms. The most perilous type of turbulence is clear-air turbulence, which can happen suddenly without any visible signs in the sky ahead.
Clear-air turbulence occurs frequently in high-altitude regions, particularly in or near jet streams. The main cause is wind shear, which occurs when two large air masses in close proximity move at varying speeds. When the speed difference is significant, the atmosphere is unable to cope with the stress, leading to the formation of turbulent patterns similar to eddies in water.
When you get strong wind shear near the jet stream, it can cause the air to overflow. And that creates these chaotic motions in the air,” Thomas Guinn, chair of applied aviation sciences department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, explained.
Impact of turbulence
It is challenging to track the overall count of injuries caused by turbulence worldwide. However, certain countries release their national data.
More than one-third of all airline incidents in the United States from 2009 through 2018 were related to turbulence. Most of these incidents resulted in one or more serious injuries but did not cause any damage to the plane, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Between 2009 and 2022, a total of 163 individuals sustained serious injuries during turbulence incidents, necessitating hospitalization for a minimum of two days as per NTSB data. The majority of those affected were flight attendants, who face higher risks due to their increased likelihood of being out of their seats while the aircraft is in motion.
What was behind Tuesday’s incident?
The recent Singapore Airlines incident involved the plane descending 6,000 feet in 3 minutes after encountering severe turbulence over the Indian Ocean. Initial reports from Bangkok, where the plane landed, indicated one death and several severe injuries among passengers and crew. Researchers suggest that while injuries are not uncommon due to turbulence, fatalities are very, very rare.
How can turbulence be avoided?
Pilots use various methods to avoid turbulence, such as weather radar displays and visual observations to navigate around thunderstorms. However, clear-air turbulence is harder to predict as it often occurs without warning.
Air traffic controllers alert pilots to turbulence reported by other aircraft. Pilots also analyze jet streams for signs of wind shear and plan routes accordingly. Modern aircraft are built to withstand turbulence, though cabin areas might sustain cosmetic damage.
Now-standardised safety procedures can also help in preventing more cases of serious injuries over the years. These procedures include reviewing weather forecasts, having pilots report turbulence encounters, and suspending cabin service during rough air conditions.
Modern planes are designed to withstand almost any turbulence. Cabin areas such as overhead bins may receive cosmetic damage, but it might nott impact the structural integrity of the plane
Is climate change causing an increase in turbulence?
Reports of turbulence encounters are on the rise, and some scientists attribute this trend to climate change. Researchers suggest that climate change could be altering the jet stream and increasing wind shear, which in turn drives up turbulence.
Flying becomes a little turbulent with the mercury level going over 40°C. The high surface temperature coupled with the presence of hills nearby triggers a sudden change in the direction of wind close to the ground, and crosswinds make it difficult for pilots to keep planes stable when gliding down to land. Climbing for a takeoff is a challenge because the air is thinner. The lift of the plane caused by its aerodynamic body is reduced.
Guinn, who is from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, explains that some experts predict that climate change may change the jet stream and increase the wind shear. This, in turn, could lead to higher levels of turbulence in the air.
However, other factors might also be contributing to the increase in turbulence reports. Experts suggests that the rise in overall air traffic could be a factor, as more flights mean more encounters with turbulent areas.
How can travelers ensure their safety?
The key to staying safe during turbulence is simple: buckle up. While predicting turbulence can be challenging, experts emphasize that keeping your seat belt fastened is the best defense.
Planes are generally built to withstand turbulence, explains Guinn, who also notes that many injuries from in-flight turbulence occur because passengers are not wearing their seat belts. Although no precaution is foolproof, wearing a seat belt significantly reduces the risk of serious injuries.
(With AP inputs)

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