More than 100 years ago, pilots John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown completed the first transatlantic flight when they flew nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland. That inaugural flight in 1919 was a 16-hour journey beset by poor vision, terrible weather, and a lack of navigational tools to guide the pilots.

Fast forward a century later, more than 1,750 flights make the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe daily. Advancements in technology are obviously a massive factor contributing to the increase, but credit also goes to Japanese meteorologist Wasaburo Ooishi’s discovery of a highway in the sky, allowing pilots and airlines to make the trip at accelerated speeds and increased volumes.

Between 1923 and 1925, Ooishi conducted nearly 1,300 observations of winds he referred to as a high-altitude river of air by launching weather balloons and tracking their position and speed.

Unfortunately, Ooishi’s discovery would go unnoticed by the world due to his ties to the Esperanto society — a group formed in the 1870s that looked to globalize communication with one language — and his findings being published in that language.  

With much of the world unaware of how beneficial the river in the sky, which would come to be known as the jet stream, could be for air travel, Japan took heed and used those high-altitude winds to launch thousands of hydrogen balloons strapped with bombs during World War II. 

Out of about 9,000 bombs, more than 300 were found in North America, although more may have made it undetected. In 1945, one of those bombs killed six people, five children, and a reverend's pregnant wife, in Bly, Oregon after a victim unknowingly picked up one of the explosives. 

Jet Stream Gains International Recognition

In 1931, long before the Bly bombing, the U.S. military speculated that the jet stream might exist after pilot Wiley Post flew more than 2,000 miles at 30,000 feet from Burbank, California to Cleveland, Ohio in just seven hours, a trip that would typically take more than 12 hours at lower altitudes. 

The Bly bombing would become confirmation for the U.S. that the river in the sky was real and it became known as the jet stream. 

So what are these highways in the sky? Jet streams are bands of strong wind that blow west to east, are just a few hundred miles in width, and wrap around the entire Earth. The streams form when bodies of warm air clash with cold air in the planet's atmosphere, starting at about 23,000 feet. 

“There are two crucial ingredients for a jet stream to form. One of them is the rotation of the Earth and the second one is the north-south temperature difference between the very warm tropical regions and the very cold polar regions,” Paul Williams, professor of astronomical science at the UK's University of Reading, told Cheddar.

The high-altitude winds exist in both the northern and southern hemispheres and consist of a subtropical jet stream as well as a polar jet stream, where wind speeds can top out at 275 miles per hour.

In 2019, a flight from Los Angeles to London broke the sound barrier after entering the jet stream and traveled at a record 801 miles per hour. In the early 20th Century, the jet stream would change the game for planes flying from west to east. 

Jet Stream Revolutionizes Air Travel

Airplanes and airships were already trekking across the Atlantic but in the 1950s both international and domestic air travel would radically change when airlines began incorporating the jet stream in their planning. 

Today, accounting for the jet stream is standard practice and for international flights, it’s a joint effort between several countries. Air traffic planners in the U.S., Canada, Ireland, and Scotland work to keep the system running effectively.

Together, the group creates the North Atlantic Organized Track System daily, showing the current system of transatlantic flight routes. The effort by the four air traffic planning centers is necessary since radar communication is limited when planes are over oceans. 

No one day is the same for these air traffic centers as jet stream locations change constantly based on the position of the sun and time of year. 

Dangerous Jet Stream Travel Looms

The need to grapple with the climate crisis will be even more evident in the coming years, according to scientists, as it begins to impact air travel within the jet streams.

A phenomenon known as vertical wind shear, where wind speed and direction suddenly shift due to a change in temperature, is becoming more frequent and upping the incidents of dangerous turbulent winds.

“This has already happened since I was born and that’s quite sobering for me in the late 70s. The jet stream is 15 percent more sheared. So we already think that there’s more turbulence from that and the effect will continue into the future and could double or even triple the amount of turbulence in the atmosphere later this century,” Williams said.

Some scientists speculate that as soon as 2050 if countries don't tackle the climate crisis, flights may likely experience more severe turbulence in jet streams leading to a rise in the number of plane crashes if planners don't account for the changes.

Video produced by Lisa Nho. Article written by Lawrence Banton.

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