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Breaking down the different levels and causes of turbulence

todayMarch 17, 2024 3

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — With spring break and the eclipse just right around the corner, some people might find themselves flying to their destination of choice. Sometimes, when flying, you may experience turbulence throughout the journey. But what exactly is turbulence and what causes it? Let’s break down the details.

What is turbulence and should you be scared of it?

According to the National Weather Service, “turbulence is an irregular motion of the air resulting from eddies (a whirl of air) and vertical motions.” What can make turbulence so scary and frightening is its unpredictability. Most people fear turbulence because of its uncertainty. But something to remember is that no aircraft has crashed because of turbulence. Turbulence can make your flight feel bumpy and unsettled, but something to remember is that turbulence is only jello. When you are flying and suddenly feel turbulence, imagine that you are wiggling in jello. That is a quick and easy thing to remember if you do have a fear of turbulence. Or maybe breaking it down even more to better understand it will put you at ease.

The different levels of intensity of turbulence

Pilot reports of turbulence intensity are categorized as light, moderate, severe, or extreme. According to the National Weather Service, these are the effects of the intensity of turbulence:

Light: slight erratic changes in altitude and/or attitude

Moderate: change in altitude and/or attitude, but the aircraft remains in positive control at all times

Severe: large, abrupt changes in altitude and/or attitude; aircraft may be momentarily out of control

Extreme: aircraft is violently tossed about and practically impossible to control; may cause structural damage.

These levels of intensity of turbulence are explained by the reaction of the aircraft. But what does the intensity feel like from inside the aircraft? According to the National Weather Service, these are what the levels of intensity would feel like from inside the aircraft:

Light: unsecured objects may be displaced slightly; food service easily conducted; no difficulty in walking

Moderate: unsecured objects dislodged; food service and walking difficult

Severe: food service and walking impossible

Extreme: strong desire to land

We now know what turbulence is and how it can be categorized, but we are still missing one piece of the puzzle: what causes turbulence?

What causes turbulence?

There isn’t one specific thing that causes turbulence; however, there can be one thing that causes turbulence during your specific flight. There are several different causes of turbulence:

Clear Air Turbulence

This type of turbulence occurs in cloud-free air without the help of any visual aids, such as clouds. The phenomenon is believed to be felt as the plane moves in between two different air masses that could be moving at different speeds and/or directions. This type of turbulence is felt at or above 15,000 ft. Clear air turbulence cannot be easily avoided but can be easily escaped just by pilots altering the altitude of the aircraft by a few thousand feet.

Frontal Turbulence

This kind of turbulence is caused by friction between two opposing air masses and the lifting of warm air by a sloping frontal surface. This will create frontal turbulence, which can be characterized by the clashing of warm and cold air masses. This type of turbulence is most common when thunderstorms develop. While cold fronts are most known for turbulent weather (where thunderstorms often form along), warm fronts could also cause frontal turbulence because of the collision between warm and cold air masses.

Credit: The National Weather Service

Mechanical Turbulence

This type of turbulence occurs when a solid object, like a mountain or building, causes an obstruction to wind flow. According to the National Weather Service, “The stronger the wind speed (generally, a surface wind of 20 knots or higher is required for significant turbulence), the rougher the terrain and the more unstable the air, the greater will be the turbulence. Of these factors that affect the formation of turbulence, stability is the most important.” Wind speeds, air stability, and irregular terrain are all factors that can lead to the formation of mechanical turbulence. If the air is unstable, it will allow for those eddies to grow larger, which will increase the choppiness.

Credit: The National Weather Service

Mountain Wave Turbulence

This type of turbulence occurs when a strong wind passes over large terrains, such as mountain ranges, causing disruption in the air. The interaction of stable air on the lee side of the mountains and unstable air on the windward side causes these mountain waves. According to the National Weather Service, some of the favorable conditions for mountain waves include:

Winds 25 knots or greater, blowing perpendicular to the top of the mountain range

Wind speeds increasing with height

Little change of wind direction with height

Stable atmosphere

This requires air parcels to be forced to rise over the mountain crest to sink toward their initial altitude

Credit: The National Weather Service

Thermal (Convective) Turbulence

This kind of turbulence occurs when the sun heats the earth’s surface and causes the air above it to warm and rise. This lifting, warm air then mixes with cooler air that is falling, which creates the turbulence you may experience during your flight. The continuous cycle between the rising warm air and falling cooler air can cause dynamic fluctuations in the atmosphere. The warming of the earth’s surface usually happens during the day. This is why pilots usually suggest flying very early in the morning or at night to try and avoid this type of turbulent activity.

Credit: The National Weather Service

Thunderstorm Turbulence

This type of turbulence originates from the powerful updrafts and downdrafts within a thunderstorm. The clashing of cold and warm air can cause sudden changes in wind speed and direction along with some pockets of severe turbulence. According to the National Weather Service, “Maximum turbulence usually occurs near the mid-level of the storm, between 12,000 and 20,000 feet, and is most severe in clods of the greatest vertical development.” This can pose a danger to the aircraft as well as the pilots, who are trying to navigate through the skies.

Credit: The National Weather Service

Wind Shear

This type of turbulence occurs when there is a change in the wind direction and/or speed in a specific area. This specific area can either be vertical or horizontal. This phenomenon is most frequently observed close to the jet stream, in the vicinity of troughs and lows, and in regions where temperature inversion turbulence occurs.

Credit: The National Weather Service

Click here for the National Weather Service’s description of the different causes of turbulence.

​ ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — With spring break and the eclipse just right around the corner, some people might find themselves flying to their destination of choice. Sometimes, when flying, you may experience turbulence throughout the journey. But what exactly is turbulence and what causes it? Let’s break down the details.

What is turbulence and should you be scared of it?

According to the National Weather Service, “turbulence is an irregular motion of the air resulting from eddies (a whirl of air) and vertical motions.” What can make turbulence so scary and frightening is its unpredictability. Most people fear turbulence because of its uncertainty. But something to remember is that no aircraft has crashed because of turbulence. Turbulence can make your flight feel bumpy and unsettled, but something to remember is that turbulence is only jello. When you are flying and suddenly feel turbulence, imagine that you are wiggling in jello. That is a quick and easy thing to remember if you do have a fear of turbulence. Or maybe breaking it down even more to better understand it will put you at ease.

The different levels of intensity of turbulence

Pilot reports of turbulence intensity are categorized as light, moderate, severe, or extreme. According to the National Weather Service, these are the effects of the intensity of turbulence:

Light: slight erratic changes in altitude and/or attitude

Moderate: change in altitude and/or attitude, but the aircraft remains in positive control at all times

Severe: large, abrupt changes in altitude and/or attitude; aircraft may be momentarily out of control

Extreme: aircraft is violently tossed about and practically impossible to control; may cause structural damage.

These levels of intensity of turbulence are explained by the reaction of the aircraft. But what does the intensity feel like from inside the aircraft? According to the National Weather Service, these are what the levels of intensity would feel like from inside the aircraft:

Light: unsecured objects may be displaced slightly; food service easily conducted; no difficulty in walking

Moderate: unsecured objects dislodged; food service and walking difficult

Severe: food service and walking impossible

Extreme: strong desire to land

We now know what turbulence is and how it can be categorized, but we are still missing one piece of the puzzle: what causes turbulence?

What causes turbulence?

There isn’t one specific thing that causes turbulence; however, there can be one thing that causes turbulence during your specific flight. There are several different causes of turbulence:

Clear Air Turbulence

This type of turbulence occurs in cloud-free air without the help of any visual aids, such as clouds. The phenomenon is believed to be felt as the plane moves in between two different air masses that could be moving at different speeds and/or directions. This type of turbulence is felt at or above 15,000 ft. Clear air turbulence cannot be easily avoided but can be easily escaped just by pilots altering the altitude of the aircraft by a few thousand feet.

Frontal Turbulence

This kind of turbulence is caused by friction between two opposing air masses and the lifting of warm air by a sloping frontal surface. This will create frontal turbulence, which can be characterized by the clashing of warm and cold air masses. This type of turbulence is most common when thunderstorms develop. While cold fronts are most known for turbulent weather (where thunderstorms often form along), warm fronts could also cause frontal turbulence because of the collision between warm and cold air masses.

Credit: The National Weather Service
Mechanical Turbulence

This type of turbulence occurs when a solid object, like a mountain or building, causes an obstruction to wind flow. According to the National Weather Service, “The stronger the wind speed (generally, a surface wind of 20 knots or higher is required for significant turbulence), the rougher the terrain and the more unstable the air, the greater will be the turbulence. Of these factors that affect the formation of turbulence, stability is the most important.” Wind speeds, air stability, and irregular terrain are all factors that can lead to the formation of mechanical turbulence. If the air is unstable, it will allow for those eddies to grow larger, which will increase the choppiness.

Credit: The National Weather Service
Mountain Wave Turbulence

This type of turbulence occurs when a strong wind passes over large terrains, such as mountain ranges, causing disruption in the air. The interaction of stable air on the lee side of the mountains and unstable air on the windward side causes these mountain waves. According to the National Weather Service, some of the favorable conditions for mountain waves include:

Winds 25 knots or greater, blowing perpendicular to the top of the mountain range

Wind speeds increasing with height

Little change of wind direction with height

Stable atmosphere

This requires air parcels to be forced to rise over the mountain crest to sink toward their initial altitude

Credit: The National Weather Service
Thermal (Convective) Turbulence

This kind of turbulence occurs when the sun heats the earth’s surface and causes the air above it to warm and rise. This lifting, warm air then mixes with cooler air that is falling, which creates the turbulence you may experience during your flight. The continuous cycle between the rising warm air and falling cooler air can cause dynamic fluctuations in the atmosphere. The warming of the earth’s surface usually happens during the day. This is why pilots usually suggest flying very early in the morning or at night to try and avoid this type of turbulent activity.

Credit: The National Weather Service
Thunderstorm Turbulence

This type of turbulence originates from the powerful updrafts and downdrafts within a thunderstorm. The clashing of cold and warm air can cause sudden changes in wind speed and direction along with some pockets of severe turbulence. According to the National Weather Service, “Maximum turbulence usually occurs near the mid-level of the storm, between 12,000 and 20,000 feet, and is most severe in clods of the greatest vertical development.” This can pose a danger to the aircraft as well as the pilots, who are trying to navigate through the skies.

Credit: The National Weather Service
Wind Shear

This type of turbulence occurs when there is a change in the wind direction and/or speed in a specific area. This specific area can either be vertical or horizontal. This phenomenon is most frequently observed close to the jet stream, in the vicinity of troughs and lows, and in regions where temperature inversion turbulence occurs.

Credit: The National Weather Service
Click here for the National Weather Service’s description of the different causes of turbulence. Read More WeatherRochesterFirst  

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