Air turbulence forecasting: A safer way to fly?

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An air turbulence forecasting algorithm co-developed by British researchers has helped make flying safer and smoother for up to 2.5 billion passenger journeys.

Professor Paul Williams, from the University of Reading and the NERC National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS), together with his team from the US, developed an algorithm to predict in-flight turbulence using gravity waves in the atmosphere.

The algorithm has been used every day by the US National Weather Service since 2015 to create air turbulence forecasts, which are used by the aviation sector to plot safer flight routes. These low turbulence routes are also helping to make flying greener by reducing CO2 emissions.

Tens of thousands of planes encounter severe turbulence every year, with an estimated cost to the global aviation sector of around a billion dollars annually through injuries to cabin crew and passengers as well as structural damage to aircraft.

Turbulence is increasing as global temperatures rise due to climate change, and Professor Williams has been working with aircraft engineers at Airbus to make sure that the next generation of planes is fit for a warmer and bumpier airspace.

Professor Paul Williams said: “Turbulence is unpleasant to fly through and can be very distressing for nervous fliers. In severe cases, it can be dangerous, and we know it will become worse over the coming decades as the global climate warms. By developing better turbulence forecasting methods, and working with Airbus to ensure future aircraft design is informed by our climate change turbulence projections, we should have safer skies and help pilots avoid things that go bump in the flight.”

Professor Williams’ research with Professor John Knox, University of Georgia, USA, and Don McCann, McCann Aviation Weather Research Inc., USA has been shortlisted for the societal category of the 2018 Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Impact Awards. Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the Natural History Museum, London on 3 December 2018.

NERC Associate Director of Research Ned Garnett said: “Professor Williams met a challenge that was thought to be intractable – predicting air turbulence – and tackled it head on, coming up with a theory, proving it, and having it adopted as an industry standard.

“The NERC Impact Awards recognise the impact that environmental research has had on society and the economy. Together with his team, Professor Williams has already improved the safety of flying in the North American airspace, and with plans to roll out their algorithm globally, air passengers look set to benefit the world over.”

Professor Phil Newton, Research Dean for Environment at the University of Reading, said: “I am delighted that Paul’s research has been shortlisted for a NERC Impact Award. The use by airlines of the turbulence forecasts that Paul’s research enables is a considerable achievement already affecting routing decisions as well as comfort and safety for 2.5 million passengers every day. It is also helping to make flying greener by reducing the aviation industry’s CO2 emissions. Yet more exciting is Paul’s ambition to develop the impact further, into the realms of influencing aviation industry policy and aircraft design.

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