Thursday, February 9, 2012

Chemtrails or contrails?

An enduring aviation conspiracy theory is the idea of chemtrails, the belief that jet airliners are spraying mysterious chemicals as they fly over the country. The motive of these sprayers varies according to different websites and conspiracy purveyors. Some claim that the chemtrails have to do with global warming. Others claim that it is a sinister New World Order plot to kill millions of people.

“Chemtrails” are actually composed of water vapor. More accurately they are known as contrails, or condensation trails. These trails occur when the cold air at high altitudes is meets the warm exhaust of an aircraft’s engine. The fuel burned by the engine contains water. As the water in the exhaust cools, it forms ice crystals or water droplets, forming a cloud. This is similar to how fog comes from a car’s exhaust on a cold day. Keep in mind that even if the temperature is hot on the ground, it is very cold at high altitudes where jets fly. There are many pictures of WWII bombers with piston engines leaving contrails in the sky. These pictures predate jet airliners and global warming theory by decades.

Variations in wind, humidity, and temperature aloft may cause contrails to dissipate more quickly in some areas than others. A chart on shows under what conditions contrails form. As one would expect from a natural phenomenon, contrails form under scientifically predictable conditions.

If you watch airplanes landing on a damp day, you might also see a different kind of vapor trail. On some occasions, you can see vapor trails streaming from a plane’s wingtip close to the ground. These trails can be caused by the wing of the airplane changing the pressure of the air it flies through. Vortices from the wingtips reduce pressure and allow the already humid air to condense.

There are some airplanes that really do spray chemicals. These are known as crop dusters. There are important things to notice about crop spraying operations. First, the airplane only sprays very close to the ground. The higher the chemical is released, the greater the chance that will disperse or be blown away before settling on to the crop. A crop duster normally flies and dusts from altitudes lower than telephone and power poles.

Second, you can also see that crop dusters have a lot of plumbing on the trailing edge of the wings. These lines and nozzles are where the chemicals are dispensed. Airliners and military jets have no such apparatus. A typical jet’s wing has many moving parts such as flaps, slats, and spoilers that are designed to improve handling, especially at low airspeeds, and to slow the airplane down for landing. They have nothing in the way of pipes and nozzles, however. This is true even for military tanker aircraft, which transfer fuel to other airplanes by either a single boom or hoses that trail behind the tanker.

Crop dusters have been considered as a possible terrorist weapon. It is not outside of the realm of possibility that they could be used by a terrorist group to launch a chemical or biological attack. This would require not only the skill to fly the airplane low over an urban area, but also the technical knowledge necessary to get the proper mixture of the chemical or biological agent to work with the spraying equipment. This makes such a scenario unlikely.

The lack of spray equipment isn’t the only factor limiting the use of airliners as spray planes. Fuel is a major component of the weight of an airplane, especially one that travels for long distances.  If an airliner were to carry enough fuel to fly across the country or the ocean as well as a heavy load of chemicals to spray, there would be no room left for passengers or baggage.  

In some cases, chemtrail believers claim to have discovered fibrous material that fell to the ground after “chemplanes” flew over. This is apparently the caused by a variety of material, from plant fibers to spider webs to trash. An interesting explanation is that floating strands of fibers are actually the product of ballooning spiders.

Ballooning spiders have been observed for hundreds of years. According to Australia’s Museum Victoria, occasionally thousands of spiders will ride on thin strands of web. As they land, their webs can cover the ground or stick to other objects. Spiders can ride the wind on their webs for hundreds of miles according to Live Science. An article on notes that the light strands of gossamer silk used by ballooning spiders can collapse when touched, giving the appearance of dissolving.

There have been real attempts to modify the weather with aviation, typically through cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is an attempt to control where rain falls by dropping materials such as dry ice or silver iodide into clouds to promote the formation of rain. In WWII, the British experimented with cloud seeding and may have caused a flood that killed 35 people. In June 2010, Smithsonian Air & Space magazine detailed a U.S. effort to divert hurricanes. Project Stormfury began in the 1940s and lasted until the 1980s when the experiment was deemed ineffective. In 2008, the Chinese attempted to seed clouds to prevent rain during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Cloud seeding is usually performed locally rather than on long range flights.

After the 9/11 attacks, when all flights above the US were grounded for three days, scientists did have a rare opportunity to conduct a study of how contrails affect climate. They did determine that contrails affect temperature, just as other clouds do. Scientists believe that contrails help to reduce the temperature range between daytime highs and nightly lows. Ironically, some scientists believe that, because contrails are more prevalent when the sun is out, that they may actually help to reduce global warming.

In the end, there really is a chemtrail conspiracy. Like many other conspiracy theories, it is a conspiracy to separate gullible people from their money. The sites that promote the chemtrail conspiracy often sell documentaries that purport to tell the “truth” about chemtrails or devices that they claim will neutralize the chemicals being sprayed. Save your money.

Instead, go visit your local airport. Many airports have viewing areas where you can watch the airplanes taxi, take off, and land. Even many military airports are located in urban areas where you can watch their flight operations from parking lots or roads. Take a pair of binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens and look for mechanisms that would allow any of these airplanes to spray chemicals or drop “nanotechnology fibers.” See the truth for yourself.

This article was published on

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