Go Green: Climate Change and the Not So Friendly Skies

By Tom Last

Recently, airplane turbulence has made the headlines as it has caused several injuries and even one death during these incidents. On May 20, a Singapore Airlines flight from London on its way to Singapore experienced extreme turbulence which left one dead and dozens injured. The airplane had to be diverted to Bangkok, where more than 70 people were treated. Officials said “sudden extreme turbulence” was encountered about 10 hours into the flight from London.

On May 26, twelve people were injured during turbulence again on a Qatar Airways flight from Doha on its way to Ireland. The plane, a Boeing B787-9, experienced turbulence flying over Turkey. Six passengers and six crew members were injured and taken to the hospital after landing in Dublin.

These occurrences are not usual. Although it has not been determined the cause of the turbulence, in both cases, climate change was said to be a factor in the disturbances. Recent research indicates that turbulence is rising, and this change is sparked by climate change, specifically elevated carbon dioxide emissions affecting air currents. All categories of turbulence are increasing around the world at all flight altitudes and some atmospheric scientists studying turbulence feel clear air turbulence could triple by the end of the century.

So, to understand how climate change is causing turbulence in the sky, let’s talk basics about the atmosphere. Our atmosphere is a wonderful thing. It protects us from the sun’s radiation while releasing most of the heat that bounces from the surface of our planet into space. It shields us from meteors, while protecting the surface from ultraviolet radiation. The Earth’s atmosphere extends 300 miles and has five layers. Most of the atmospheric gases are concentrated in the troposphere, the layer closest to the surface. The troposphere is the altitude at where most commercial airplanes fly.

Naturally occurring greenhouse gases are needed to keep our planet’s temperature at an average of 57 degrees. Without these greenhouse gases, the Earth’s average temperature would be closer to 0 degrees. However, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. The burning of fossils fuels (i.e., gas, coal, oil) is increasing greenhouse gas emissions faster than our atmosphere can filter them into space. So, the planet’s temperature keeps increasing along with airplane turbulence due to the trapped greenhouse gases in the troposphere.

In the short term, to keep yourself safer while flying, make sure you keep your seatbelt on as much as possible, because most of the major injuries in these recent turbulence episodes happened to those passengers who were not buckled in. But in the long term, think about becoming an environmental advocate.

Here are some recommendations to begin your journey in helping us save the planet.

  • Drive your car less by using mass-transit, car-pooling, biking, and walking more.
  • Educate yourself on climate change and the environment and pass on information to others.
  • Choose electronic receipts instead of paper.
  • Stop the stream of junk mail.
  • Reduce single-use plastics (e.g., plastic water bottles). Most products now have a non-plastic alternative (e.g., laundry detergent sheets in biodegradable packaging instead of liquid laundry detergent in plastic containers).
  • Think before you buy and buy second-hand when possible. Donate your goods to charity.
  • Add vegetarian meals to your menu. Say no to beef and lamb most days.
  • Fix things that break.
  • Raise your air conditioner’s thermostat to 72 degrees or higher in the late spring and summertime when in use.
  • Close your shades, blinds, and curtains to keep out the sunlight in the late spring and summertime.

Remember, there is no Planet B!

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