For nervous flyers or those prone to motion sickness, turbulence can make air travel an uncomfortable experience. If you’ve ever wondered whether booking a red-eye could help avoid choppy skies, you’re not alone. Many passengers speculate that flights at night encounter fewer bumps.
If you’re short on time, here’s the quick answer: Overall, there is less turbulence at night compared to daytime flights. However, clear-air turbulence, which is difficult for pilots to predict, can still occur after dark.
Why Turbulence Occurs During Flights
When it comes to air travel, turbulence is a common concern for many passengers. It can be unsettling and even cause anxiety for some. But why does turbulence occur during flights? There are several factors that contribute to the occurrence of turbulence, including thermal turbulence, mechanical turbulence, and jet stream turbulence.
Thermal Turbulence from Sun Heating the Ground
One of the main causes of turbulence during flights is thermal turbulence. This type of turbulence is caused by the heating of the Earth’s surface by the sun. As the sun heats the ground, the air above it also heats up. This warm air rises, creating vertical air currents known as thermals.
When an aircraft encounters these thermals, it can lead to pockets of turbulence. The intensity and frequency of thermal turbulence can vary depending on the time of day and the weather conditions.
Mechanical Turbulence from Wind Flow over Terrain and Manmade Structures
Another factor that contributes to turbulence during flights is mechanical turbulence. This type of turbulence is caused by the wind flowing over terrain features such as mountains, hills, and valleys, as well as manmade structures like buildings and bridges.
When the wind encounters these obstacles, it can create eddies and turbulence in the air. This can be particularly noticeable during takeoff and landing, when the aircraft is flying at lower altitudes and closer to the ground.
Pilots are trained to anticipate and navigate through these areas of mechanical turbulence to minimize its impact on the flight.
Jet Stream Turbulence at Cruising Altitudes
At cruising altitudes, another type of turbulence that can occur is jet stream turbulence. The jet stream is a high-speed air current that flows from west to east in the upper levels of the atmosphere. It can reach speeds of over 100 knots and can create turbulence when an aircraft encounters it.
Jet stream turbulence is often more common during the winter months when the jet stream is stronger. Pilots receive regular weather updates and use advanced forecasting tools to avoid areas of intense jet stream turbulence whenever possible.
How Nighttime Conditions Reduce Turbulence
Cooler temperatures mean less thermal turbulence
One of the main reasons why turbulence tends to be less severe during nighttime flights is due to the cooler temperatures. During the day, the sun heats the Earth’s surface, causing the air to rise and create thermal turbulence.
This type of turbulence is often experienced during sunny afternoons, especially over land. However, at night, as the Earth cools down, the temperature gradient between the ground and the air above it decreases.
This results in fewer thermal updrafts and downdrafts, leading to a smoother flying experience.
Laminar wind flow in the absence of the sun
Another factor that contributes to reduced turbulence at night is the laminar wind flow. Without the sun’s heating effect, the wind tends to blow more smoothly and steadily during the nighttime hours. This laminar flow creates a more stable and predictable flying environment, minimizing the chances of encountering turbulent air pockets.
Pilots and air traffic controllers often refer to this as “smooth air” and it is greatly appreciated by both crew and passengers.
Less air traffic congestion
During nighttime hours, there is typically less air traffic, resulting in reduced congestion in the skies. With fewer planes in the air, there is less likelihood of encountering wake turbulence, which can be particularly unsettling for passengers.
Wake turbulence is the disturbance created by an aircraft’s wings as it passes through the air. It can cause sudden jolts or drops in altitude, but the chances of encountering it are significantly lower during nighttime flights when air traffic is lighter.
This, in turn, contributes to a more comfortable and less turbulent flying experience.
Exceptions: Clear-Air Turbulence
Clear-air turbulence is difficult to predict
While flying at night can generally provide a smoother experience, it is important to note that clear-air turbulence can still occur, regardless of the time of day. Clear-air turbulence, or CAT, is a type of turbulence that occurs in cloudless skies, making it difficult to predict or detect.
Even during nighttime flights, CAT can still pose a challenge for both pilots and passengers, as it can occur unexpectedly and without warning. So, while flying at night may reduce the chances of encountering certain types of turbulence, it does not eliminate the possibility of experiencing clear-air turbulence.
Jet streams still cause bumpiness at cruising altitudes
Another factor to consider when it comes to turbulence during nighttime flights is the presence of jet streams. Jet streams are high-altitude currents of air that can flow at speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. These strong winds can create pockets of turbulence, even at cruising altitudes.
While jet streams are not exclusive to nighttime flights, they can still contribute to bumpiness in the air, regardless of the time of day.
Mountain waves can happen any time of day
Furthermore, mountain waves are another type of turbulence that can occur at any time of day, including during nighttime flights. Mountain waves are caused by strong winds interacting with mountains or other elevated terrain, creating oscillating waves of air.
These waves can result in moderate to severe turbulence, depending on the strength of the wind and the topography of the area. So, even though flying at night may offer a quieter and less crowded airspace, it does not guarantee a complete absence of turbulence caused by mountain waves.
It is important to keep in mind that while flying at night may generally provide a smoother experience due to reduced air traffic and thermal activity, it does not guarantee a turbulence-free journey.
Pilots and airlines continuously monitor weather patterns, utilize sophisticated technology, and rely on reports from other pilots to ensure passenger safety and minimize turbulence-related discomfort.
So, whether you are flying during the day or at night, it is always recommended to keep your seatbelt fastened and follow the instructions of the flight crew to ensure a safe and comfortable flight.
Tips for Smoother Night Flights
Avoid red-eyes to maximize sleep
If you are someone who values a good night’s sleep, it may be best to avoid taking red-eye flights. These flights depart late at night and arrive early in the morning, often disrupting your natural sleep patterns.
Lack of proper sleep can lead to fatigue and decreased alertness during your journey, making the flight experience more uncomfortable. Instead, consider booking a flight during the day or evening, allowing you to have a restful night’s sleep before your journey.
Request a seat near the wings for less motion
For those who are particularly sensitive to turbulence, choosing the right seat can make a noticeable difference in your comfort level. Many aviation experts suggest requesting a seat near the wings of the aircraft.
This area is generally considered the most stable part of the plane, as it is closer to the center of gravity. By sitting in this section, you may experience less motion and turbulence during your flight, leading to a smoother and more enjoyable journey.
Stay hydrated, limit caffeine and alcohol
Proper hydration is essential during air travel, especially when flying at night. Dehydration can exacerbate the effects of jet lag and make you more susceptible to discomfort and fatigue. It is important to drink plenty of water before and during your flight to stay hydrated.
On the other hand, it is advisable to limit your intake of caffeine and alcohol, as they can contribute to dehydration and disrupt your sleep patterns. Opting for water or herbal tea can help you stay refreshed and minimize any potential turbulence-related discomfort.
While night flights tend to provide a smoother ride overall, clear-air turbulence can still present challenges after dark. Preparing for your red-eye by staying hydrated, getting adequate rest, and requesting a strategic seat location can help minimize discomfort.
And remember – those bumps in the night sky are perfectly normal and nothing to be alarmed about.