After a “severe turbulence” Singapore Airlines flight caused multiple injuries, the media jumped to conclusions about climate change.
After severe turbulence rocked a Singapore Airlines jet, news outlets started asking if this was a result of climate change. (Photo by Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Stop Making Plane Turbulence About Climate Change

After a ‘severe’ Singapore Airlines flight caused multiple injuries, the media jumped to conclusions.

Passengers “smashed” into the ceiling, blood stained the carpet in the aisles, luggage flew through the cabin, and there was “awful screaming”: Is what happened on a Singapore Airlines jet on Monday evening going to become a regular occurrence?

The plane, which was flying from London to Singapore, reportedly encountered “severe turbulence” about 10 hours into the flight, while 37,000 feet above southern Myanmar. Multiple passengers were injured—20 were still in intensive care this morning—and one man died: a 73-year-old British citizen who appears to have gone into cardiac arrest.

Within hours of reporting the incident, major news organizations were wondering: Will this be the new normal, in the age of global warming? “Is climate change making turbulence worse?” asked the BBC. Yes, reported Nature, with the headline “Why climate change is making flights rougher.” Bloomberg and CNN both ran similar stories.

The American government had bought into this narrative even before the Singapore Airlines incident. On May 16, President Joe Biden signed into law a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, which includes the Severe Turbulence Research and Development Act. Rep. Haley Stevens, who introduced the bill, told Congress: “Turbulence is an increasing problem as weather becomes more unpredictable due to climate change.”

But what does the science say? By far the most prominent scientist making this case is Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at Reading University in the UK. All the pieces mentioned above reference his work, which uses mathematical models to predict how climate change will affect clear air turbulence—that is, turbulence you can’t see coming. (This kind of turbulence is caused by wind, rather than by clouds.)

In 2017, he co-authored a study that received a lot of attention, because it predicted that a rise in atmospheric CO2 could double, or even triple, incidences of severe clear air turbulence. He also published a much-publicized paper in 2022 arguing that wind speed changes over the North Atlantic had increased in the last few decades—the basis for arguing that clear air turbulence will get worse. And in another widely reported paper, published in 2023, Williams predicted a 55 percent increase in clear air turbulence over the North Atlantic. 

Williams has also developed an aviation turbulence forecasting algorithm, which is widely used, including in the U.S.—and has received an award from the British government.

But how solid is his link between clear air turbulence and climate change? Earlier this year, Williams co-authored a letter to the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, which walked back the findings of his 2022 paper. If we include new data, the letter explained, the increase in wind speeds above the North Atlantic ceases to be “statistically significant.”

As is often the case—whether the subject of a study is vaccines or mental illness—the revised conclusion received far less attention from the press than the original claim. 

Besides, Williams’ research is almost entirely focused on clear air turbulence over the North Atlantic. Can it really offer insight into the Singapore Airlines incident? Pilots aren’t so sure.

Mark Hofmeyer, a Qantas pilot and vice president of the Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA), told journalists he believes that thunderstorms—which cause “convective turbulence”—were the likely cause of the incident, rather than “clear air turbulence.” 

David Evans, a Qantas pilot who spent years flying over the Bay of Bengal, stated that turbulence is common in the area with the arrival of powerful monsoons at this time of year.

I emailed Williams, pointing out that multiple experts believe Monday’s incident was caused by convective turbulence rather than clear air turbulence. He replied with a link to a 2023 study that suggests convective turbulence is also projected to increase because of climate change. But this extreme scenario has been called into question by many other scientists.

Simon Proud, a scientist with the European Space Agency, posted on X that it’s “disappointing” to see scientists implicitly link the Singapore Airlines incident with climate change. His observations, based on satellite imagery, chime with the two pilots’: there were large thunderstorms in the area at the time. (He could not comment because he is involved in an investigation into the incident.) 

Williams’ claim that rising CO2 levels will increase turbulence hasn’t been proven—it is based on mathematical projection. You can’t rule out the possibility that he’s right, says Ryan Maue, a private sector weather scientist who worked in the Trump administration. But we’re not there yet.

When I spoke to him, Maue pointed out that the incidence of injuries on airplanes caused by air turbulence has actually come down over the years, despite the fact that air travel has increased exponentially over the last half-century. If climate change does make the skies bumpier, he added, any increased risk will likely be mitigated by improvements in technology—for instance, increasingly sophisticated weather prediction software (which he expects will get even better with AI).

“I recognize that climate change is real, of course. I can look at the data just like everybody else,” he told The Free Press. But he isn’t on board with the doom and gloom scenario that dominates the media. 

It’s disturbing that journalists jumped to conclusions about this incident. People are afraid of both climate change and flying—but instead of playing on those fears, the media should be giving us the facts.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story inaccurately described Paul Williams’ letter to the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society as a “retraction.” The piece has been updated, to describe it as a “revised conclusion.” The previous version incorrectly stated that clear air turbulence (CAT) is caused by “wind speed”; it is caused by wind shear (changes in wind speed or direction over a given distance.) The piece has been updated accordingly. The Free Press regrets the error.

Rupa Subramanya is a reporter for The Free Press. Read her piece “Lock Up Your Kids: The Eclipse Is Coming!” and follow her on X @rupasubramanya.

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