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Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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A New Study Suggests It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Flight

A new study predicts air-travel turbulence may occur over larger areas thanks to climate change.

Image source: Atstock Productions/Shutterstock

When your plane hits turbulence, it can be pretty scary — although it's not as likely to cause a crash as it may seem at that moment. Severe turbulence is dangerous for injuries incurred as passengers are tossed about the cabin, but beyond that, it's more unnerving than anything. Now a new study published in Advances In Atmospheric Sciences by atmospheric scientist Paul Williams of Reading, PA, suggests things may be about to get much worse on winter flights along at least one travel route — the one that crosses the North Atlantic between North America and Europe — thanks to climate change.

Williams' forecasts are based on the expectation that CO2 levels will continue rising at the rate they have so far, and his predictions describe what he foresees as conditions we should expect by the middle of this century. He finds that the areas along the route prone to turbulence are about to grow in size, with increases varying by the severity of the turbulence.

Areas that currently experience:

severe turbulence are likely to expand by 149%, although he admits it could really be anywhere from a 30% increase to a 188% increase.

moderate-to-severe turbulence will grow by 129%.

moderate turbulence will grow by 94%.

light-to-moderate turbulence will grow by 75%.

light turbulence will grow by an average of 59%.

This is the second study by Williams, following up on a 2013 study published in the Journal Nature Climate Change by Williams and Manoj M. Joshi of the University of East Anglia. That earlier study looked only at moderate-to-severe turbulence.

21 different wind-related indicators related to turbulence were examined in the new study, including wind speed, and change in the direction of air flow.

Williams' chose to focus on the North Atlantic because it's a highly traveled route, and specifically on winter turbulence because that's when the phenomenon is most prevalent.


It's not at all clear if Williams' predictions for the North Atlantic apply to other areas of turbulence around the globe. According to an email sent by Isla Simpson, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, to the Washington Post, “Regional variations of this increase may be quite uncertain, particularly in the higher latitudes where other aspects of circulation change that are less well understood and more model-dependent may dominate."

Williams points out that, although it may occur over a larger area, severe turbulence would still be pretty rare, and weather forecasting algorithms already give pilots a heads-up on choppy air. Even so, any increase in turbulence can be tough on planes, and pilots may need to burn more fuel flying around it.

Predicting atmospheric patterns is dicey at best, and the full effects of climate change on air travel aren't at all clear. Much of what happens will depend on the behavior of large-scale atmospheric currents on the atmospheric slopes from the equator to the poles.


Scientists are already seeing changes, though — for example, there's no agreement on whether atmospheric currents are getting stronger or weaker. In any event, Simpson told the Post that scientists are getting more certain about changes “that we expect to happen higher up, near the altitude where planes fly."

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

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