What Causes Turbulence on a Plane? 6 Reasons for Turbulence


Turbulence on a plane can come from one or more causes. Pilots are trained to safely and efficiently respond to turbulence. Regular air travel passengers are accustomed to occasional turbulence through their ride. To a degree, some turbulence is normal in certain conditions. At times, evidently, turbulence can be problematic and prove to have fatal consequences.

Turbulence is ‘rough travel’. It’s kind of like driving over a pothole in the middle of the road. It’s temporary in its disturbance and can pass in seconds to minutes depending on conditions. Turbulence does not mean a plane is going to crash and is a common occurrence on some flights. Rest assured that airplanes are equipped with aircraft maintenance systems that will secure your flight during turbulence periods, so you remain safe and sound in the air.

There are many causes of turbulence on a plane, but most of the time it is harmless. Turbulence caused by things like upward and downward currents, thermal currents, or clear air turbulence is temporary. An experienced and/or well-trained pilot is equipped to handle dynamics such as this and does not constitute an emergency.

Here are the six common reasons on what causes turbulence on a plane:

Reason #1: Wind Speed Can Rock the Plane

Sudden changes in wind speed can rock the plane, akin to a boat on a stormy sea. Turbulence experienced close to the ground is most often caused by heavy winds. This can make take-offs and landing particularly challenging.

Reason #2: Thermal Turbulence is Another Type

Thermal turbulence is caused by hot air rising. This hot air comes from clouds below or thunderstorm conditions. As air rises, its temperature drops and particles of moisture begin to present in the form of clouds. We, fortunately, see this happening.

Reason #3: Clear Air Turbulence is Most Dangerous

The most dangerous kind of turbulence is clear air turbulence. This occurs in seemingly perfect, cloudless skies. It is not picked up by weather radar. This means a pilot and flight crew aren’t prepared to react to it nor to warn passengers to buckle up.

In most cases, injuries related to turbulence are often associated with clear air turbulence. Due to climate change, clear air turbulence is on the increase unfortunately.

Reason #4: Jet Stream Turbulence

A ‘jet stream’ is extremely strong wind at high altitudes. They can exceed 300 km/hour, usually blowing from west to east in the northern hemisphere. Jet streams are why flying across the Atlantic Ocean to North America takes longer than the other way around.

Ideally, outbound flights try their best to avoid jet streams. An inbound flight, however, may take advantage of the tailwind. Where it gets tricky is when a jet stream suddenly changes direction in high- or low-pressure areas. This is where we experience the turbulence.

Reason #5: Turbulence Experienced from Mountains

When a strong wind encounters high mountains, all that power has nowhere to go but up. Like waves in an ocean, this sends wind to high altitudes and at great distances. This is the cause of turbulence experienced around and over mountain ranges.

Reason #6: Turbulence from An Aircraft to Another

A big reason why aircraft must be separated by a certain distance is because an aircraft can cause turbulence through a phenomenon known as a ‘wake vortex’. If you’ve ever seen a ship pass through water, the same dynamic happens with a plane in air.

The larger the plane, the larger the vortex that’s created. This is why minimum distance between aircraft must be maintained and why we wait an extended period of time between departures at airports after large-body aircraft.

Why turbulence won’t damage an aircraft

Planes utilize technologically-advanced designs that make it very, very unlikely turbulence will damage it. Aircraft are very flexible, with the capacity to withstand even the most intense turbulence. Planes are built with this in mind.

The best thing a passenger can do during unexpected turbulence is to sit down and fasten their seatbelt. At the front of the plane, turbulence is controlled and responded to by the pilot and air traffic controllers. In most cases, turbulence can be predicted and thereby, a pilot and their aircraft are ready for it as it occurs.

How dangerous is turbulence?

In the United States, more than 800 million people fly every year. Of those, 58 passengers are injured every year from turbulence. The vast majority of these incidents occur from people not wearing their seatbelts when the bumps occur. Always obey the ‘seatbelt’ sign.

How to avoid turbulence in the future

As impossible as it may sound today, new aircraft technology is in development to potentially reduce or end turbulence altogether. The current theory is that by using ultraviolet lasers to send pulses out into the air ahead of time, this could essentially neutralize turbulence and allow an aircraft to pass through it with ease. Though in early stages of development, this could prove transformational for the aircraft industry.

Panicking doesn’t help you or anyone else. During turbulence, staying calm – whether you’re a passenger or part of the crew – is central to maintaining safety. Though it can be very unnerving the first time you experience it, turbulence is an expected part of air travel and is very well controlled by those overseeing aircraft.