Airplane Contrails are Contributing to Global Warming Too
The science on this relationship is still developing, and while cirrus clouds are acknowledged to have a net warming effect, the significance of this effect is still uncertain. The scientific understanding of cloud formation and modification due to air travel is still limited.
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As the most recent IPCC assessment report notes:. Yet to get an accurate estimate of total warming impacts from aviation, cirrus effects should be included.
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Although uncertainty remains about the precise nature of aviation-induced cirrus-caused warming, we do know how cirrus clouds form, and that they have a warming impact. According to some researchers, this warming impact could be very significant. Diurnal temperature range for the September aircraft groundings: Evidence of jet contrail influence on climate," Journal of Climate, These regions of rotating flow are called vortices.
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Any sharp surface, such as the tip of a wing, can cause vortical flow in its wake if it is sufficiently large or the flow is sufficiently fast. On occasion, these trailing vortices may interact with one another.
In one well-known example of this fact, the Crow Instability causes the vortices to develop symmetric sinusoidal oscillations and eventually to merge and form vortex rings behind the jet. This instability can be triggered by turbulence in the surrounding air or by local variation in air temperature or density, which may itself be the result of the stratification of the atmosphere.
When the contrails are visible and strong, it is possible to see the white streaks become wavy and then leave rings floating high in the sky, like smoke rings from a giant cigar. Recent research has suggested that the ice clouds contained in contrails cause greenhouse effects and contribute to global warming as part of the insulating blanket of moisture and gases in the atmosphere.
Researchers in this area seized on the opportunity presented on September 11 and 12 over the U. The complete cessation of commercial air traffic offered a control sky without contrails for use in quantifying the environmental effects of contrails. Planes on these routes therefore tend to leave contrails behind them. Over the British Isles, trails rarely form below about 8 km in summer, 6 km in winter.
Contrails Are Air Travel's Dirty Secret
When the weather is as cold as it often is in mid-winter in Alaska, Siberia and central Canada, contrails can even form at ground level. Indeed, airfields in these regions have sometimes had to be closed when low-level clouds ice fogs composed of aircraft-generated ice crystals have proved persistent. Once formed, contrails are distorted by upper winds and spread by diffusion.
Persistent contrails often form large patches of cloud that look like cirrus, cirrocumulus or cirrostratus.