What is turbulence and why does it happen?

Photo of Jacob LewisPhoto of Jacob Lewis
By Jacob Lewis

22 May 20243 min read

plane flying under blue sky and white cloud

Turbulence – every flyer's least favourite part of air travel. Those bumps, jolts and drops can range from mildly annoying to downright unsettling. But what exactly is turbulence, what causes it and how dangerous is it, really?

Buckle up and stow your tray tables in their upright position – we’re smoothing out some of the mysteries around those rough patches in the sky.

What is turbulence?

Put simply, turbulence is irregular motion of the air that can cause an aircraft to bounce around. The US Federal Aviation Administration defines turbulence as "air movement that normally cannot be seen and often occurs unexpectedly." It can range from light choppiness to more severe jolts that cause up-and-down motion.

What causes turbulence?

Four main factors contribute to turbulence:

  • Thunderstorms, which can generate strong up- and downdrafts
  • Jet streams, which are fast-flowing air currents high in the atmosphere
  • Mountains, which disrupt smooth air flow
  • Collisions of cold and warm air masses.

Is turbulence dangerous? Can it cause a plane to crash?

Severe turbulence is extremely rare, and modern commercial jets are designed and tested to withstand even very rough air. While the sensation may be alarming, the actual risk to the aircraft is minimal. Turbulence on its own is unlikely to cause a crash. Injuries from turbulence usually happen because people aren't wearing seatbelts.

How do pilots know when turbulence is coming?

Pilots use weather reports, radar and forecasts to predict and avoid turbulence as much as possible. They also receive real-time reports from other aircraft.

However, clear-air turbulence cannot be detected in advance.

Pilots will turn on the seatbelt sign whenever they anticipate rough air.

Where is turbulence the worst on a plane? Which seats are best?

The rear of the plane tends to experience bumpier motion, so consider a seat over the wings and closer to the front of the aircraft. However, no area is immune.

I'm a nervous flyer. What can I do to handle turbulence better?

A few tips:

  • Wear your seatbelt at all times and tighten it if you're feeling anxious
  • Distract yourself with music, reading or deep-breathing exercises
  • Remember that the pilots and aircraft are well equipped to handle some jostling
  • Avoid alcohol as it can enhance motion sensitivity

Is turbulence becoming more common due to climate change?

Some research does suggest that rising carbon dioxide levels may increase clear-air turbulence – that is, turbulence in cloudless skies – in the future. However, aircraft and aviation technology are constantly evolving and improving to mitigate these effects as much as possible.

How can I know if there will be turbulence on my flight?

While you can check weather forecasts for your flight path, predicting the precise location and timing of turbulence isn't always possible – especially clear-air turbulence, which happens unexpectedly.

However, you can use websites like Turbli to see where turbulence has been reported on flight routes and to compare the "bumpiness" of different routes. In general, be prepared for the possibility of some amount of turbulence on any flight.

The bottom line is that while turbulence can be unsettling, it's a normal part of flying and usually presents little risk to passengers – especially if you buckle up. Understanding the science behind turbulence and being prepared with some coping techniques can help make your ride a bit smoother, even if the air isn't.

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