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Climate change will accelerate jet stream winds and airplane turbulence

A recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change reveals significant insights into the future of the Earth’s jet streams amid escalating climate change. 

Conducted by Professor Tiffany Shaw from the University of Chicago and Osamu Miyawaki from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the research presents a concerning scenario. As the planet warms, the fastest winds in the upper-level jet streams are predicted to increase in speed substantially.

Focus of the study 

“Earth’s upper-level jet streams influence the speed and direction of travel of weather systems and commercial aircraft, and are linked to severe weather occurrence,” wrote the study authors. 

“Climate change is projected to accelerate the average upper-level jet stream winds. However, little is known about how fast (>99th percentile) upper-level jet stream winds will change.” 

“Here we show that fast upper-level jet stream winds get faster under climate change using daily data from climate model projections across a hierarchy of physical complexity.”

Key findings 

Jet streams, the high-altitude winds steering global weather patterns, are expected to undergo drastic changes. The study finds a direct correlation between rising temperatures and the acceleration of these winds. 

For every degree Celsius increase in global temperatures, the fastest upper-level jet stream winds could speed up by approximately 2%. This rate of increase is notably higher than the average wind speed escalation, estimated to be 2.5 times slower.

Professor Shaw emphasizes the gravity of these findings. “Based on these results and our current understanding, we expect record-breaking winds.”

“And it’s likely that they will feed into decreased flight times, increased clear-air turbulence and a potential increase in severe weather occurrence.”

Faster jet stream winds 

Looking at recent news reports of speed-record-breaking flights over the Atlantic, the researchers discovered that there had been very little exploration of how the very fastest jet stream winds would respond to climate change. To investigate, the team combined existing climate change models with known physics of jet streams.

Jet streams form due to the temperature contrast between the cold, dense air at the poles and the warmer, lighter air in the tropics, a phenomenon first demonstrated by UChicago meteorologists Carl-Gustaf Rossby and Dave Fultz in the early 1900s. 

Climate change, the study suggests, intensifies this contrast. As tropical air warms and holds more moisture, the overall density difference between the poles and the tropics increases, resulting in faster jet stream winds.

“The increase is multiplicative – about 2% per degree – rather than linear,” said Shaw. “Thus, not only does it go up over time, the steeper the contrast you start with, the larger the increase you get – leading to fast winds getting faster.”

Global climate models 

The researchers acknowledge the need for further research to predict specific impacts on storms and severe weather. 

Current global climate models, although effective in representing the jet stream, fall short in predicting smaller-scale extreme weather events. Newer, more detailed models are expected to provide a clearer picture.

Study implications 

The prospect of faster flights may seem advantageous, but it comes with a downside. While faster trans-Atlantic flights might not seem so bad, the flip side is that planes are likely to experience more turbulence, said Shaw.

Moreover, while record-high jet stream wind speeds have been observed in recent decades, their statistical significance is yet to be established. 

“We would expect the signal to emerge in the next few decades, if humans continue the path we’re on with carbon emissions,” Shaw said. “In the end, it’s important to remember that we’re in the driver’s seat here.”

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