When travelling by air, you may experience some turbulence during your journey.

Passengers on a flight may experience a rough part of a journey while in the air. But what is turbulence and what causes it?

To help you understand what’s really going on when you feel turbulence on a plane, National Geographic has explained the key points.

What is turbulence?

Turbulence is a “violent or unsteady movement of air or water, or of some other fluid”, according to Oxford Languages.

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What causes turbulence on a plane?

The National Geographic website explains that “rough air happens everywhere, from ground level to far above cruising altitude.”

Referring to the weather.gov website, National Geographic explains that “the most common turbulence experienced by flyers has three common causes: mountains, jet streams, and storms.”

As air encounters mountains, it forms waves like the way the ocean’s wave crash on a beach.

Some air is able to pass the mountain smoothly but other air masses “crowd against the mountains themselves”, giving them no other place to go than up.

The National Geographic website adds: “These 'mountain waves' can propagate as wide, gentle oscillations into the atmosphere, but they can also break up into many tumultuous currents, which we experience as turbulence.”

Jet streams and storms can also cause turbulence when you’re on a plane.

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Further to this, the Flightright website shares that “air vortices at lofty heights” are responsible for turbulence and making aircraft wobble.

The website adds: “The vortices are particularly strong when the currents come from different directions. The collision of the air masses then causes additional air turbulence. Unfortunately, the pilots themselves cannot specifically avoid turbulence. After all, they cannot see them.

“For this reason, the turbulence comes completely unexpectedly in most cases. However, since many of the turbulences are weak, this bothers only very few. In contrast to light air turbulence, there is also strong sudden turbulence. In this case, we speak of air pockets, because the aircraft falls into a kind of hole, so to speak because the air isn’t sufficiently stable.”

It adds that experiencing turbulence while a thunderstorm occurs is “completely normal”.

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“This is because two completely different air masses meet here. While warm air masses rise, the cold air masses sink. When these two collide, strong, jerky wobbling occurs. But turbulence also occurs independently of weather phenomena. For example, when the aircraft flies over mountains. This is because the differences in altitude cause air vortices to form.”

Dense cloud formations can also cause turbulence with Flightright explaining: “Once again, temperature differences play a major role. These affect the air masses around the aircraft wings.

“Since experience shows that temperature differences are higher in summer than in winter, turbulence is more frequent at this time of year than in winter. In addition, the air is denser in summer than in winter. And thunderstorms are more frequent”.