The streaky clouds behind airplanes are the center of a new study that looks at these clouds’ contribution to climate change. As airplanes reach higher altitudes they release not only exhaust but also water vapor that forms clouds known as contrails. While most contrails dissipate quickly, others remain for hours and warm the atmosphere.
The German Aerospace Center used widely accepted climate models to predict how the impact of contrails will change over the next few decades. According to its models, the global warming effect of contrails alone could triple by 2050. This rate of growth is higher than that of exhaust emissions, thanks to current and future innovations in fuel-efficient technology. In fact, the greenhouse gas effect of contrails is higher than the total impact of carbon emissions from airplane exhaust.
The airline industry is expected to quadruple over the next few decades and newer planes tend to fly higher than their predecessors. This means that contrails are likely to remain in the atmosphere longer, especially over tropical areas, where the conditions extend the life of the clouds.
Although low-hanging clouds tend to cool down the Earth’s temperatures, those higher up actually absorb thermal radiation emitted from the Earth and then warm the atmosphere. What start as thin, long clouds can spread across thousands of square miles in certain conditions.
In relation to other emissions, the streaky clouds have a small and possibly insignificant contribution to climate change.
“While the contrail forcing is certainly significant, it’s a relatively small contributor to overall warming,” an atmospheric scientist from Dartmouth College told Earther.
However, because the climate crisis has reached the point of all-hands-on-deck, every identified source of emissions is a target for reduction via innovation and advanced technology.
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