What is turbulence? Here’s how you can track it before your next flight

4 types of turbulence can impact your flight

View from flight heading from Detroit Metro Airport to Orlando. (WDIV)

ORLANDO, Fla. – You’re one row away from getting your snack when you hear the ding. The captain just suspended in-flight service because of turbulence.

Turbulence is a common feature of air travel. It can be as light as just a few bumps or strong enough to toss the airplane out of control for a few moments.

Turbulence is defined as the irregular motion of the air resulting from eddies and vertical currents.

There are four types of turbulence that impact aircraft.

1. Convective Turbulence

This type of turbulence is generated by the uneven heating of the ground, especially in the warmer months. These convective currents, generated by warm air rising and cold air descending, are responsible for the bumps you feel when the plain flies in and out of them.

These currents aren’t always made visible by puffy cumulus clouds.


Small planes that fly under the cumulus cloud deck are more susceptible to a bumpy flight. Larger planes that get above the cloud deck will have a much smoother flight from this type of turbulence.

Convective currents that are strong enough to produce thunderstorms are responsible for creating severe turbulence.

2. Wind Shear

Wind shear is the change in wind direction and/or wind speed over a distance. When wind shear is large, severe turbulence can be expected.

Wind shear

Clear air turbulence is a type of wind shear turbulence. This type of turbulence exists at high altitudes and can come on suddenly. The highest probability of experiencing clear air turbulence is during the winter, when the jet stream is stronger.

This is the type of turbulence that will disrupt your in-flight service.

The severity will depend on the stability of the atmosphere at the top, below and above the mountains.

3. Frontal Turbulence

This type of turbulence is generated by the lifting of warm air.

Cold front lifting

This type of turbulence can become extremely severe if the air is unstable and thunderstorms develop.

Cold front

Turbulence associated with thunderstorms has the potential to overstress the aircraft. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the plane could be displaced vertically by 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

The greatest turbulence happens in the area of the thunderstorm updraft and downdraft and in the storm’s mid-section at about 12,000 to 20,000 feet.


Turbulence from thunderstorms, especially severe thunderstorms, can extend miles beyond the storm. This will be maximized down wind.

Frontal turbulence is most commonly associated with cold fronts since the lifting of air is more significant. Lift along a warm front is more gradual.

4. Mechanical Turbulence

This type of turbulence is generated from friction between the air and the ground. This is enhanced near mountains or tall buildings. If your trip takes you to the Rockies, expect some turbulence near the front range.

The severity will depend on the stability of the atmosphere at the top, below and above the mountains.

You can track where turbulence has been reported by pilots and where it could impact your flight here.

About the Author:

Jonathan Kegges joined the News 6 team in June 2019 and now covers weather on TV and all digital platforms.