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Smoother flights ahead – University of Reading

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Smoother flights ahead

Release Date 02 October 2008

Nervous fliers can rest easier following research which promises better forecasts of turbulence during flights. Dr Paul Williams, from the Walker Institute at the University of Reading, is one of the collaborators in an international team of researchers who have developed a new forecasting technique.

While cruising through clear blue skies, air passengers can suddenly be subjected to bumpiness, jolting and even a stomach-lurching plummet. Clear-air turbulence is to blame: each year it causes dozens of injuries and millions of pounds worth of damage to planes.

Weather forecasters struggle to predict where and when clear-air turbulence will strike. It happens away from any obvious severe weather, like thunderstorms, and so is hard for pilots to avoid.

"Our new method for predicting clear-air turbulence significantly outperforms the approach used currently, which dates back to the 1960s. I hope it can be used operationally as soon as possible, and that it leads to smoother flights and a reduction in human injuries and aeroplane damage," says Dr Williams.

The research, published in Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences this week, has led to the development of an entirely new approach to clear-air turbulence forecasting. The new method predicts energy associated with gravity waves—phenomena in the atmosphere that look like ocean waves but which can occur in clear air. The type of gravity wave that Dr Williams and colleagues have identified as a possible source of bumpiness is generated around jet streams of fast moving air at high altitudes, near cruising levels for aeroplanes.

The new technique differs from the currently techniques because it is based on a mathematical model of the actual physical process, i.e. the waves in the atmosphere, that cause the turbulence.


Further press information from Kathy Maskell on 0118 378 7380, or Alex Brannen on 0118 378 7388,

Notes to editors:

1. Dr Paul Williams is available for further comment or interview through the press contacts above.

2. Dr Paul Williams is a researcher within the Walker Institute for Climate System Research at the University of Reading ( Dr Williams holds a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Fellowship in the Department of Meteorology.

3. Dr Williams' collaborators were John Knox (University of Georgia) and Don McCann (a retired NOAA/Aviation Weather Centre forecaster).

4. The reference to the paper is "Application of the Lighthill-Ford Theory of Spontaneous Imbalance to Clear-Air Turbulence Forecasting" by JA Knox, DW McCann, and PD Williams, published in the October 2008 issue of Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences.

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