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Here's Why It Seems Like Turbulence Is Getting Worse

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 9/03/2016 Suzy Strutner
ATHENA IMAGE © Rafa Llano Instantaneas via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

If you've been on a plane recently, it may seem like your ride had more bumps than usual

You're not the only one who thinks so. 

Last month, passengers tweeted angrily after a domestic flight included turbulence so strong, people were given oxygen to deal with panic attacks. And the month before that, seven people went to the hospital when turbulence forced a plane to land en route from Miami to Italy. 

These stories are enough to make even a seasoned traveler shiver. WHY does it seem like turbulence is so much worse lately?

It'd be pretty tempting to say global warming is to blame for what appears to be a rise in turbulence. And that's not out of the question. Turbulence on the route from the U.S. to Europe could become up to 170 percent more frequent by 2050, a 2013 study reported in the journal Nature Climate Change.

But according to experts -- including the study's author -- you can't really claim that global warming is changing turbulence. At least not yet.

Paul Williams is an atmospheric scientist who conducted the 2013 study. He used computer models to predict clear-air turbulence, the kind that occurs unexpectedly even in the absence of mountains or clouds.

Williams says scientists will need to study turbulence trends for many more years before they know if climate change is increasing in-flight bumpiness for sure. 

"It certainly feels like there's been an unusually high number of turbulence encounters in the past couple of years," Williams told HuffPost. "We really need to wait for more evidence to build up before we can make a formal attribution."

Instead, Williams argues that turbulence likely seems more frequent right now not because of global warming, but because of social media. People taking videos of turbulence and sharing them around could easily make it seem like turbulence is worse now than ever before, he said. 

The Federal Aviation Administration, meanwhile, keeps a record of every turbulence-related injury that airlines report each year. Alas, in the FAA's most recent tallies that they sent to HuffPost, their record doesn't suggest any major changes in turbulence-related injuries within the past few years: 

It's possible that some turbulence incidents don't get reported and therefore didn't make the chart, says Larry Cornman, a turbulence specialist with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Airlines may fail to report their turbulence run-ins to the FAA, making an uptick in their frequency hard to notice. 

More likely than not, though, you're feeling "more turbulence" because you're seeing more of it on social media. At least that's how longtime pilot Patrick Smith would put it. 

Now, "there are more planes flying than ever before," Smith told HuffPost. "And the media has an insatiable appetite for anything related to planes."

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