THE BLOG
05/06/2014 04:27 pm ET | Updated Jul 06, 2014

Turbulence in the Air: What Does it Mean for You?

Does an airplane going "bump" in the air make you grip your armrest in terror? Every seen coffee flying in the air when a plane drops in altitude?

Even worse, evidence suggests that air turbulence may get worse in coming years.

Last year, researchers from the University of East Anglia published a report in Nature Climate Change about how turbulence may be affected with increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The study used climate model simulations of the transatlantic flight corridor when the concentration of CO2 is doubled. They found that most clear-air turbulence measures increased, suggesting that "climate change will lead to bumpier transatlantic flights by the middle of this century."

The report concluded ominously, "Aviation is partly responsible for changing the climate, but our findings show for the first time how climate change could affect aviation."

Clear-air turbulence can be unexpected and, as the name suggests, occurs when the sky is totally clear. It can be created by atmospheric pressure, jet streams, weather fronts, or nearby mountainous terrain.

Anyone who has experienced turbulence knows the panic of being in an aircraft that feels out of control. Like the 119 passengers and crew on United Airlines Flight 1676 this past February. The turbulence so severe that one passenger cracked the plane's ceiling panel with her head, and a baby was thrown into a nearby seat, unharmed.

The month prior, another United flight returned to Newark, 45 minutes into its Beijing-bound flight, after severe turbulence injured five flight attendants.

In 2009, a woman was paralyzed from the chest down after being thrown into the ceiling of an airplane bathroom during severe turbulence. The Continental Airlines 737 jet went into a sudden descent and rolled about 30 degrees.

Wake turbulence is a type of clear-air turbulence caused by the wings of larger, heavier aircraft after it passes, which can impact smaller aircraft on the ground or in the air. In 2001, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed shortly after takeoff from JFK, killing all 256 people onboard the Airbus A300, because the pilot overused the rudder controls in response to wake turbulence caused by a Boeing 747 that had taken off 5 minutes earlier.

While all these situations sound terrifying, it doesn't mean it's time to turn in your frequent flyer mile card.

According to the FAA, between 2002 and 2013, there were 430 injuries and zero fatalities caused by turbulence.

Most injuries are the direct effect of people not being buckled into their seats when the plane hit hazardous conditions.

Truly "severe" turbulence situations are extremely rare -- most pilots never see it in their entire career. But they are trained to handle all types of conditions. The National Center for Atmospheric Research says that pilots will try to avoid or exit any turbulent air. When you feel that plane moving up and down, it's seeking out the smoothest altitude.

The FAA mandates that all commercial aircraft be built to withstand far more stress than they would ever encounter during rough turbulence. "According to Boeing, planes are designed to withstand G forces that are 1.5 times greater than the typical turbulence."

FAA has approved a system called Wake Turbulence Mitigation for Departure, a crosswind based system that enables departures without wake turbulence constraints" on runways where spacing is closer than 2,500 feet.

Still concerned? Don't worry, there's an app for that. The SOAR app was designed by a pilot to help conquer the fear of flying, and includes a meter that shows G-forces and has a turbulence predictor. The Turbcast app also uses aviation weather charts to determine how likely your flight is to experience turbulence based on the route and time of day.

Bottom line? Turbulence sounds -- and feels -- downright terrifying, but it's not a reason to cancel your next flight. Your airplane is under control.