Aircraft contrails are a climate menace. Can we rid the sky of these?

THERE are few more delightful antidotes to stress than to lie on your own back in warm grass watching the clouds pass. As children, we love finding the outlines of animals and castles in the billowing shapes. As adults, there is something calming and comforting about those fluffy tufts of white drifting slowly past. Clouds are beautiful. Clouds are innocent.

With one exception. The streaky smears of cloud that criss-cross the sky in the wake of aeroplanes may look too wispy to cause any harm. But we have now understand that these condensation trails, or contrails, make an outsized contribution to global warming by trapping heat such as a downy jacket. “They are mostly of the manifestations of man-made climate change agents that you can actually observe,” says David Lee, an atmospheric scientist at Manchester Metropolitan University in the united kingdom. As the evidence mounts to show how harmful contrails are, some engineers are reaching for an audacious solution: scrub them from the sky altogether.

Contrails are created when water condenses to form ice crystals around tiny particles of soot from aircraft exhausts. Yet there is absolutely no fundamental reason why it has to occur. Decades of experiments with spy planes, alternative engines and, most recently, with artificial intelligence have displayed that it is possible to avoid them forming. It won’t be easy: wiping the atmosphere clean of contrails may necessitate nothing significantly less than a wholesale reimagining of the traffic inside our skies.

The result of clouds on our climate is subtle because they can both reflect incoming sunlight, that includes a cooling effect, and trap heat beneath them, …

Leave a Comment