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What Causes Airplane Turbulence?

Have you ever been on an airplane and experienced turbulence?


Photo: Bruno D Rodrigues (Flickr)

Severe airplane turbulence can cause serious injury and even death!

Have you ever flown on an airplane during turbulence?  Unpleasant right? What causes airplane turbulence?

Bump, Bump, BUMP!

Airplane bumps are caused by regions of air moving at different speeds–for example, a layer of fast-moving windy air rubbing against a layer of relatively still air.

Where the two masses of air rub against each other, you get turbulence, a chaotic and unpredictable mixing of wind.

Where Does This Chaotic Mixing Of Wind Happen?

This happens frequently near storm clouds, where a plume of warm air and clouds rises into cooler, upper layers.

It can also happen above mountain ranges, when mountains deflect the surface wind upward, pushing dense air high into the thinner atmosphere.

When You’re On A Plane…

As a plane flies through the boundary layer of turbulence, it will encounter sudden, random changes in wind speed. A strong tailwind might turn into a strong headwind, or an updraft might suddenly turn downward.

Because the airplane is immersed in this air, you experience these wind changes as bumps. Imagine driving a car along a perfectly smooth and flat highway, except the highway itself is moving unpredictably, lurching forward and backward, up and down.

Mild v Severe Turbulence

While mild turbulence is to be expected on many flights, severe turbulence, though rare, can cause injury or even death. On our next program, we’ll learn how turbulence can be predicted, and avoided.

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  • Dan Twining

    I think saying “though rare, can cause injury or even death” puts un-necessary fear into people’s heads who might be trying to read a artical like this to settle their fears….such as myself!

  • Dan Twining

    I think saying “though rare, can cause injury or even death” puts un-necessary worry into people’s heads who might read a artical like this to help them settle their fear of flying.

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