How climate change may have contributed to Hawaiian Airlines' dramatic turbulence

A Hawaiian Airlines jet takes off, with a rain cloud just forming.
A Hawaiian Airlines flight to Maui takes off from Long Beach, Calif., in March 2021. (Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images) (MediaNews Group via Getty Images)

Buckle up, because flights are about to get bumpier. Climate change may be exacerbating air turbulence, like the tumultuous winds that recently buffeted a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Phoenix to Honolulu. The oscillation was so extreme that 36 of the 248 people aboard were injured; 11 were hospitalized.

“Injuries included a serious head injury, lacerations, bruising and loss of consciousness,” Shayne Enright, a spokesperson for Honolulu Emergency Medical Services, said.

There have been several recent incidents of severe air turbulence causing injuries, including eight people hospitalized in July after an American Airlines flight from Tampa to Nashville experienced turbulence so bad that it was forced to land in Alabama.

Interior photos of the plane show ceiling missing panels, wires falling to the floor, and debris on the ground in front of a passenger seat.
Photos from passenger Jazmin Bitanga show the interior of a Hawaiian Airlines plane flying from Phoenix to Honolulu after severe turbulence rocked the flight on Sunday. (Courtesy of Jazmin Bitanga via AP) (AP)

Climate change may make such events more common in the future, according to some scientists. Turbulence occurs when the air around a plane is disturbed by air currents running counter or perpendicular to the main currents. The underlying cause of such currents is essentially stronger-than-normal winds, which may stem from factors including atmospheric pressure, air around mountains, cold or warm fronts, or thunderstorms, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Severe weather increases chances of turbulence, and due to climate change, these kinds of incidents will only continue to grow," Taylor Garland, a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants, told CBS News after Sunday’s Hawaiian Airlines flight.

Turbulence has always existed and threatened to destabilize aircraft, and it’s not possible to ascribe this specific incident to climate change. But climate change increases the prevalence of several of those risk factors. A 2019 study from Rice University found that high pressure systems may get larger and stuck in place for longer periods of time as a result of climate change. According to NASA, thunderstorms are becoming more frequent and severe because warmer water temperatures and greater water evaporation provide more energy to power storms.

A man takes photos of floodwaters from Hurricane Lane rainfall in Hilo, Hawaii.
A man takes photos of floodwaters from Hurricane Lane rainfall in Hilo, Hawaii, in August 2018. (Mario Tama/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Extreme wind events such as tornadoes may also be more likely because of climate change. A study published last year in the academic journal Earth’s Future modeled the effects of warming on the creation of “convective environments” that can lead to tornadoes. Researchers found that each degree Celsius of average warming increases the frequency of connective environments by 5% to 20%.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, between 2009 and 2018, flight crews had no advance warning about 28% of accidents caused by turbulence. Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading in England, has been studying the effect of climate change on air turbulence since 2013. In September, he predicted that clear-air turbulence — which doesn’t have any visual clues like storms or clouds and is therefore harder for airplane pilots to avoid — will increase considerably by 2050 to 2080. And the strongest turbulence, compared with milder bouts, will increase the most.

“We ran some computer simulations and found that severe turbulence could double or triple in the coming decades,” Williams told CNN at the time. He added that the duration of turbulence will also probably increase significantly.

“Typically, on a transatlantic flight, you might expect 10 minutes of turbulence,” he said. “I think that in a few decades, this may increase to 20 minutes or to half an hour. The seatbelt sign will be switched on a lot more, unfortunately for passengers.”