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Freak winds in Atlantic jet stream push commercial planes to supersonic speeds

High wind speeds due to super-cold temperatures in northeast US and much warmer air in south, experts say

Vishwam Sankaran
Tuesday 20 February 2024 04:05 GMT
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Near record-breaking wind over the mid-Atlantic region pushed east-bound commercial planes to supersonic speeds this weekend.

One passenger plane, a Virgin Atlantic flight traveling from Washington to London was pushed to nearly 1300kph (800mph), faster than the speed of sound, according to the US National Weather Service.

“This evening’s weather balloon launch detected the 2nd strongest upper-level wind recorded in local history going back to the mid 20th century,” the National Weather Service Baltimore/Washington posted on its official X account.

“Around 34,000-35,000ft, winds peaked around 230 knots (265mph!). For those flying eastbound in this jet, there will be quite a tailwind,” the weather service said.

Two other planes, including one from New Jersey’s Newark Airport to Lisbon, Portugal, reached speeds of 835mph.

While the planes notched up speeds higher than that of sound, they did not break the sound barrier as they weren’t traveling faster than sound relative to the air around them in the jet stream.

The Atlantic jet stream is a fast and narrow current of air flowing from west to east and encircling the globe and is widely used by airplanes traveling east from North America to cut down on their travel times and fuel use.

It usually has winds traveling at speeds close to 110mph (177kph) but is known to intensify at times, especially during winter months.

While such jetstream speeds have historically helped flights traveling toward Europe reach destinations faster, they have caused issues for planes moving west to the US due to turbulence, longer travel times as well as increased fuel consumption.

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There have been no reports yet of passengers facing difficulties aboard these east-bound flights.

“Wow! 265mph jet stream wind last night over parts of the east coast! Great for flight if it’s at your tail. Not so great, otherwise!,” meteorologist Lisa Green posted on X.

Recent research also suggests climate change is disrupting the flow of air currents in this part of the atmosphere.

The freak wind speeds were due to super-cold temperatures in the Northeast and much warmer air in the south, The Washington Post reported citing experts.

The wind speeds may have been accelerated by climate change.

Citing a recent study, meteorologist Jeff Beradelli said that for every 1°C increase in air temperatures, there could be a 2 per cent increase in the jetstream’s speed and a “plus 2.5X for fastest winds.”

“We are at +2°C now, so that’s 10 per cent per cent boost. Roughly 240 becomes 275mph,” he posted on X, adding that “this intense of a jetstream doesn’t likely happen in this situation without El Niño.”

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