Causes of Airplane Turbulence

To most people, air traveling is a frightening experience. Even for the bravest ones, when the plane starts rocking & rolling on the waves, staying calm is a hard thing to do. It feels literally like losing the ground under your feet. Nevertheless, airplane turbulence is a psychical phenomenon that can be reasonably explained.

Airplane turbulence is mainly caused by abnormal air movement. The phenomenon known as windshear is the result of air masses with different pressure crashing into each other, creating air waves. As cold air in the atmosphere descends rapidly, warm air spreads and rises until little below the cold air, which then tumbles. As the cold air hits the ground it splashes and spreads out producing surface winds. All these air movements can cause an aircraft to bounce when caught in between. Experienced pilots know how to control an airplane under these circumstances, although landing and take-off require more attention.

Jetstreams are another reason causing air turbulence. The diversity in wind speed and direction at certain parts of the atmosphere can make an aircraft fly in instability. This phenomenon occurs in heights greater than 12 km over the surface of the earth, where high pressure air masses collide with lower pressure air masses ones. At the meeting point, there is a pressure change and the wind that forms results in a stream because as the earth spins it causes the wind to be concentrated in a steam between the two air masses (known as the Coriolis force).  Jetstreams are also responsible for the phenomenon of air pockets. Because a jet stream can reach as speed of 250mph while the outside edge is near to 50 mph, the space in between (the air pockets) is the shifting from the fast area of the jetstream to the slower area. For passengers, air pockets feel like invisible holes in the sky making the plane lose altitude. It is a rather disturbing feeling that seems like the plane is falling down at a great speed. In fact, the aircraft drops only 10 to 20 feet, but it feels like a rollercoaster.

Closer to the surface, air turbulence can be caused over the mountains where air currents are extremely strong. As the winds blow, the plane disturbs the horizontal flow of air resulting in air turbulence. In these heights, turbulence is a milder phenomenon that usually does not disturb the passengers.

Probably the worst type of airplane turbulence is the one caused by thunderstorms. When flying inside thunderstorms, strong upward or downward currents of air disrupt the normal airplane movement creating high turmoil. Even below thunderstorms, there are strong colliding winds, which combined with heavy rain and lightning can cause intense turbulence that may cause the plane to crash. Turbulence can also be experienced around the edge of a thunderstorm. For that reason, pilots are informed in advance for any upcoming thunderstorm in order to protect passengers from any similar situation.

All in all, air travel is a magnificent experience and airplane turbulence should not be a reason to sustain from it. What you should remember is that airplane turbulence may be rather distressing and upsetting, but it is not hazardous. Nowadays, technology has provided airlines with the ability to predict such phenomena, making air travel a safe and exciting experience.