The importance of accurate air turbulence forecasting for aviation

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Jim Foerster, director of meteorology services for DTN, looks at how more sophisticated weather models and algorithms are helping to predict turbulence better

A 2016 study of fatal weather-related general aviation accidents in the US shows that weather, including turbulence, was a cause or contributing factor in 35% of cases. This is one reason why many aviation regulations around the world state that all passengers and crew must have their seatbelts fastened prior to aircraft moving, and can only be unfastened once the threat of turbulence, among other hazards, is lessened. Turbulence is a major concern for airlines and passengers, as evidenced by the recent news coverage of the subject.

While flights are en route to their destination they may encounter several types of turbulence, including clear air turbulence (CAT). CAT is a sudden and often unexpected severe turbulence that appears in cloudless areas and results in the aircraft being buffeted violently. It occurs as a result of wind shears in the jet stream that cause sudden changes in direction and speed of the wind. Because it occurs without any visual representation, CAT is virtually impossible to detect with onboard instruments or the naked eye, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a pilot to avoid.

This type of turbulence is not only a nuisance for passengers but can also cause extensive damage to aircraft and can injure passengers and flight crews. During the cruise stages of flight, CAT can cause the aircraft to suddenly shift hundreds of feet, sending items flying around the cabin.

Turbulence is estimated to cause more than €455m (US$499m) each year in damage and delays for the airlines and other aviation businesses, which makes avoiding it a priority. Businesses are investing in systems from private weather companies that can detect CAT using advances in technology so that flight planners and pilots can avoid it.

While previous technology has made CAT difficult to predict and detect, new advances in technology that result in more sophisticated weather models and algorithms allows accurate forecasting of the turbulence. These advances allow increased visibility of CAT from all major flight cruising levels. These systems also provide the ability to integrate high-resolution, gridded and frequently updated turbulence potential information into flight management and planning systems.

This information allows airlines to file flight plans for routes that keep passengers and crew safe, maximize efficiency and reduce costs. Having near-pinpoint accuracy in detecting CAT allows pilots to make smaller, calculated shifts in the route to avoid the hazardous turbulence (and other weather conditions) rather than having to fly out of their way for hundreds of miles. Airlines can use this to minimize costs by getting passengers and cargo from point A to point B as safely, quickly and efficiently as possible.

These advances in technology being offered by private weather companies have become even more important in recent years and will continue to prove necessary. A recent study by the University of Reading in the UK is predicting a 149% increase in severe air turbulence in the coming years due to stronger jet streams that allow ‘wavier’ patterns to form, resulting in increased occurrences of air turbulence.

As airlines and other aviation business continue to look at ways to maintain safe flights while maximizing efficiency, the need for new technology that can detect various forms of turbulence, including CAT, will continue to grow. As the need increases, private weather companies will also continue to research and develop these advances in technology.

Jim Foerster is one of just 198 certified consulting meteorologists (CCM) in the world. CCMs are experts in the application of weather information to a host of practical challenges. He serves as director of meteorology services for DTN, the largest business-to-business weather organization in the world, where he and his colleagues provide actionable weather forecasts and consulting services in the aviation, transportation, marine, energy, agriculture and safety markets.

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