21st May 2024 – (Singapore) A Singapore Airlines flight from London to Singapore experienced severe turbulence, resulting in one fatality and numerous injuries. This incident, which occurred over the Bay of Bengal, not only highlights the immediate impacts on passenger safety but also serves as a potent reminder of the broader challenges posed by climate change to aviation safety.

On the afternoon of 21st May, 2024, flight SQ321 faced unexpected severe turbulence, compelling an emergency diversion to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. The Boeing 777-300ER, carrying 211 passengers and 18 crew members, encountered a sudden altitude drop that caused chaos and fear among the passengers. Reports from the scene describe a harrowing few minutes where passengers and cabin items were thrown violently around the cabin due to the abrupt descent.

This tragic incident resulted in the death of a 73-year-old British man while leaving over 30 others injured, some critically. The immediate response saw multiple ambulances and emergency teams dispatched to the airport to assist the injured. Singapore Airlines has since extended its deepest condolences to the bereaved family and is cooperating with Thai authorities to support the injured passengers.

The role of climate change in exacerbating turbulence cannot be overstated. Research indicates that rising global temperatures are disturbing the atmospheric conditions, leading to more frequent and severe turbulence. As explained by Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading, clear air turbulence, which occurs without any visual warning signs, is becoming more prevalent due to instability in the jet stream exacerbated by a warming atmosphere. His recent research indicates that incidents of severe clear air turbulence over the North Atlantic have surged by over 50% in the last four decades, a trend expected to worsen with ongoing global warming. Despite the increasing frequency, Williams reassures that turbulence rarely causes injury to those who are seat-belted, emphasising the importance of keeping seat belts fastened during flights as a precaution in our increasingly turbulent skies.

These findings are critical as they highlight not just a rise in clear-air turbulence, which occurs without visible weather changes and is thereby undetectable by traditional radar, but also an overall increase in all turbulence categories. The financial implications are considerable too, with the aviation industry incurring costs ranging from $150 to $500 million annually due to turbulence in the United States alone.

Clear-air turbulence (CAT), which was responsible for the recent incident on flight SQ321, presents a particularly insidious threat because it can strike without warning. This type of turbulence is caused by high-altitude air currents and is not associated with cloud formations, making it nearly impossible to detect with standard onboard weather radar systems.

Efforts are underway to improve detection technologies. Innovations such as LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology offer promise. LIDAR systems can detect turbulence up to 20 miles ahead, potentially giving pilots enough time to navigate away from rough patches. However, these systems are currently expensive and bulky, making widespread adoption a challenge.

The aviation industry must adapt to this new reality where turbulent flights could become more common. This adaptation involves enhancing pilot training, improving aircraft design to withstand severe turbulence, and investing in advanced detection technologies. Moreover, educating passengers about the importance of following safety instructions, such as keeping seat belts fastened, could significantly mitigate injuries during such incidents.