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NERC Impact Awards 2018: 2.5 billion passengers enjoy safer air travel

An air turbulence forecasting algorithm, co-developed by British researchers, has helped make flying safer and smoother for up to 2·5 billion passenger journeys.

Professor Paul Williams
Professor Paul Williams

"Turbulence is unpleasant to fly through and can be very distressing for nervous fliers. In severe cases it can be dangerous, and we know it will become worse over the coming decades as the global climate warms."

Professor Paul Williams, from the University of Reading and the NERC National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS), together with his team developed an algorithm to predict in-flight turbulence using gravity waves in the atmosphere.

The algorithm has been used every day since 2015 by the US National Weather Service to create air turbulence forecasts, which are used by the aviation sector to plot safer flight routes. These low turbulence routes are also helping to make flying greener by reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Tens of thousands of planes encounter severe turbulence every year, with an estimated cost to the global aviation sector of around a billion dollars annually, through injuries to cabin crew and passengers as well as structural damage to aircraft.

Turbulence is increasing as global temperatures rise due to climate change, and Professor Williams has been working with aircraft engineers at Airbus to make sure that the next generation of planes is fit for a warmer and bumpier airspace.

This was a team application led by Professor Paul Williams, with Professor John Knox, University of Georgia, USA, and Don McCann, McCann Aviation Weather Research Inc., USA.

Making flying smoother and safer by predicting turbulence with Professor Paul Williams:

Professor Paul Williams said:

“Turbulence is unpleasant to fly through and can be very distressing for nervous fliers. In severe cases it can be dangerous, and we know it will become worse over the coming decades as the global climate warms. By developing better turbulence forecasting methods, and working with Airbus to ensure future aircraft design is informed by our climate change turbulence projections, we should have safer skies and help pilots avoid things that go bump in the flight.”

NERC Associate Director of Research Ned Garnett said:

“Professor Williams met a challenge that was thought to be intractable – predicting air turbulence - and tackled it head on, coming up with a theory, proving it and having it adopted as an industry standard. The NERC Impact Awards recognise the impact that environmental research has had on society and the economy. Together with his team, Professor Williams has already improved the safety of flying in the North American airspace, and with plans to roll out their algorithm globally, air passengers look set to benefit the world over.”

Anaïs Mermet from Airbus said:

“Professor Williams’s research has been a true motivation for Airbus to work on an automated turbulence-reporting function. We consider that his assessment of the evolution of turbulence phenomena in the future is a key point to demonstrate the interest of such a function. The research has contributed to increase Airbus’s understanding of the impacts that climate change may have on aircraft operations. Although much remains to be studied, it is key to anticipate as much as possible, notably through knowledge exchange between science and industry.”

Phil Newton, Research Dean for Environment at the University of Reading, said:

“I am delighted that Paul’s research has been shortlisted for a NERC Impact Award. The use by airlines of the turbulence forecasts that Paul’s research enables is a considerable achievement already affecting routing decisions as well as comfort and safety for 2·5 million passengers every day. It is also helping to make flying greener by reducing the aviation industry’s CO2 emissions. Yet more exciting, is Paul’s ambition to develop the impact further, into the realms of influencing aviation industry policy and aircraft design.”

Professor Williams’s research has been shortlisted for the societal category of the 2018 NERC Impact Awards. Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the Natural History Museum on 3 December 2018.


1. NERC is the UK’s main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world’s most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

2. The University of Reading is rated as one of the top 200 universities in the world (QS World University Rankings 2019) and is home to world-leading research in several fields. Its Department of Meteorology hosts world class research, finding solutions to some of the biggest problems facing the natural environment and society.

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