Just what is turbulence, and how is it made? Are there different intensities of turbulence? Can we avoid it?
Many people don't really know just what turbulence is, or how it's caused, so here we're going to take a more detailed look at some of these questions...
What is Turbulence?
Turbulence is caused when an airplane flies through waves of air that are irregular or violent, which cause the aircraft to bounce around and yaw. It can be compared to two seas meeting, with all the big waves and strong currents that are produced. A boat or ship that passes through these two seas will bounce around on the water, in just the same way an airplane does in the air. Airplane turbulence is the same kind of incidence, only it's invisible.
Turbulence can be formed by many different conditions, such as jet streams, thunderstorms, mountain waves, cold or warm fronts, atmospheric pressure or microbursts. In essence, turbulence is caused by the irregular movements of air that is created by a collision of different air pressures or streams.
Most people who travel regularly or semi-regularly on airplanes have experienced this turbulence, and it's always a disconcerting experience when the aircraft is tossing around.
Aircraft turbulence comes in a range of different intensities, with each level impacting differently upon the airplane. Here's a closer look at the different turbulence intensities:
Light Turbulence: This causes only barely noticeable changes in the plane's altitude.
Light Chop: Slight but rapid bumpiness is experienced, still without major changes in the altitude of the plane.
Moderate Turbulence: Intense, irregular changes of altitude are caused, but the airplane is still under complete control of the pilot.
Moderate Chop: Intense and rapid bumps are caused, though changes in altitude are barely noticeable.
Severe Turbulence: Large, rapid changes in the plane's altitude are caused, with the potential for the pilot to temporarily lose control of the plane.
Extreme Turbulence: Luckily this is extremely rare, but in cases where extreme turbulence has been experienced, the plane is tossed around aggressively, with the pilot losing all control of the aircraft. Reactions within the plane itself vary, from loose items being displaced to loose items being thrown around the aircraft, while passengers can be jolted around.
Clear Air Turbulence
This kind of turbulence occurs when there is no cloud in the sky. It is most often encountered when an airplane that is cruising at altitude suddenly enters a dangerously turbulent area.
While the sophisticated instruments and radars on a plane can spot many things, they cannot detect this kind of turbulence. When Clear Air Turbulence does occur, most of the time the effect is mild at the front of the plane, but more severe at the plane's rear, meaning pilots cannot measure its intensity.
While pilots are unable to see Clear Air Turbulence, if they scrutinize the weather forecast and charts, they should be able to spot areas where turbulence might possibly occur.