If you’ve ever been on a bumpy plane journey, either as a passenger or pilot, you know the uneasiness of turbulence and how it can be a worrying moment in the flight.
But what exactly causes turbulence and are clouds one of the major reasons that turbulence occurs?
Today we are going to take a deep dive into the science behind turbulence. Learning what causes it and whether the weather has any effect on how severe turbulence can be.
What Is Turbulence?
Turbulence is caused by air currents called vortices. These vortices occur when there’s an imbalance between warm and cold air. The warmer air rises while the colder air sinks. This causes the air to become turbulent.
When this happens, the temperature of the air becomes uneven, but the pressure remains constant. So, if you’re flying at 10,000 feet, your aircraft will continue to climb because the pressure outside the aircraft stays the same.
Vortices form from imbalances in air pressure.
The reason for these imbalances is usually due to differences in altitude.
For example, if a storm system is moving towards you, then you’ll see a decrease in pressure over land. This means that the air above the ground is getting sucked down towards the surface.
As the air gets pulled downwards, it creates a vortex around the low-pressure area. It’s this movement of air that causes wind shear.
How Does Weather Affect Turbulence?
So, does the weather have anything to do with turbulence? Well, yes! Many factors contribute to the formation of turbulence. However, the most important factor is the difference in altitude between the two areas of air.
If the air is cooler than normal, then it will sink. This makes the surrounding air rise up. This results in the formation of a vortex which leads to turbulence.
If the air is warmer than normal, then it won’t sink. Instead, it will stay aloft. Because the surrounding air isn’t rising, it doesn’t create enough lift to counteract the force of gravity.
This results in the air being pushed upwards. This pushes the surrounding air downwards. And this downward motion creates more lift.
This upward motion is what causes wind shear. Wind shear is the main contributor to turbulence.
Wind shear is the result of the rapid change in direction of the wind. It’s also known as dynamic pressure. In other words, it’s the difference in pressure between two points.
When the wind blows across a mountain range, it forms a series of waves. Each wave is like a crest and trough. The crest represents high pressure and the trough represents low pressure.
When the wind hits a mountain ridge, it causes the air to move rapidly in different directions. This causes the pressure to fluctuate. This fluctuation in pressure causes the air to accelerate.
If the air accelerates quickly, then it creates wind shear.
Turbulence occurs when the air is accelerated too quickly. This causes the air particles to collide with each other. This collision produces heat energy.
Heat energy is released when the air molecules come together. This causes the air mass to expand.
As the air expands, its density decreases. This causes the air pressure to drop. The lower air pressure causes the air to fall back down again. This cycle continues until the air reaches equilibrium.
Do Clouds Cause Turbulence?
So now the question you’ve all been waiting for: can turbulence be caused by clouds?
The answer is yes, they can! A cloud acts as a lid on top of the atmosphere. This lid prevents the air below it from sinking. This allows the air to remain aloft.
However, the presence of a cloud has another effect. It reduces the amount of sunlight hitting the earth. This causes the temperature of the air to increase. This increases the rate at which the air rises.
Because there is less light reaching the earth, the rate of evaporation is reduced. This means that the water vapor content of the air is reduced. This reduces the amount of moisture available to form rain or snow (see also “Can Planes Fly In Snow?“).
It should be noted that the presence of a cloud does not necessarily mean that precipitation will occur. Sometimes, even though there is more precipitation, a cloud may still produce turbulence.
Can You Fly Through Clouds?
Yes, you can fly through clouds. But, you need to be careful about how you approach them.
Clouds are formed when water droplets get suspended in the atmosphere. They’re often referred to as cumulus clouds. Cumulonimbus clouds are tall and puffy. They look like large thunderstorms.
You can fly through clouds because they don’t affect your ability to fly. That said, there are some things you should keep an eye out for.
Clouds are made up of tiny ice crystals. These crystals reflect light. When the sun shines on the cloud, it reflects light onto your plane. This reflection can make you appear larger than you are.
Why Are Some Clouds Smooth To Fly Through?
Some clouds are smooth enough that you can fly through without any problems. However, others can be very difficult to navigate around.
Smooth clouds tend to have fewer ice crystals. Because these clouds are so smooth, they’ll usually have a white color. White clouds are easier to see against the blue sky.
What About Flying Through Fog?
Another thing to watch out for is fog. Fog is caused by moisture in the air. As the air cools, it condenses into liquid form. This liquid drops to the ground. Fog is usually white or gray.
Fog is dangerous because it reduces visibility. Visibility is the distance that objects can be seen from one another. A lack of visibility means that you may not see something coming right at you.
Fog can also reduce your ability to control your plane. For example, if you’re flying over a lake, you might notice that you can no longer see the shoreline. If you try to descend, you could end up crashing into the water.
How Do I Prevent Turbulence?
Now that we know how turbulence occurs, let’s look at some ways to prevent it.
First off, if you’re flying over an area where there are mountains, try to fly above them. This way, your plane won’t have to fight against the wind.
Next, avoid flying through thunderstorms. They tend to be turbulent areas.
Finally, make sure you don’t fly into a headwind. Headwinds can cause turbulence because they reduce the amount of air flowing past the wings.
If you do encounter turbulence, the best thing to do is to maintain altitude. If you reduce your altitude, you’ll only add to the problem.
What Should I Do In Severe Turbulence?
In severe turbulence, you might lose control of your aircraft. However, this doesn’t always happen.
The first thing you want to do is to stay calm. Don’t panic. Instead, concentrate on what you can do to help yourself.
For example, you could use autopilot to level your plane. Then, you could use the controls to stabilize your attitude.
When you feel safe enough, you can turn off the autopilot. This will allow you to regain manual control of your aircraft.
When you land, check the landing gear. Make sure that they haven’t collapsed. If they have, they’ll need to be repaired before taking off again.
Turbulence is common in aviation. Although it’s not a major safety issue, it can be annoying.
To minimize its effects, you should take precautions. The most important precaution is to fly safely. Remember to avoid thunderstorms, mountain ranges, and headwinds.
If you follow these tips, you shouldn’t experience any problems with turbulence, or at least manage the safety of your airplane to the best of your ability.