How to Look at Contrails

© Copyright 2021 Rachel Bowman, Ryerson University.

How to Look at Contrails

Many of us have been gravitating to outdoor excursions during the pandemic that has settled itself among us over the last year. It seems to be one of the only activities we can safely do that is spiritually and mentally gratifying. We seem to prefer our excursions when the cadmium yellow sun rays shine highest in the swirl of few feathery clouds contrasting the expansive azure sky. This view never seems to bore us. We can walk the same streets living in the same old small town bored senselessly by the familiar shapes of buildings and faces, and still, the upper atmosphere ceaselessly charms us with its fascinating allure.

Looking upon this great stretch, sometimes we can come across a linear billowy mass that mimics the texture of a cloud. Sometimes the lines appear to be thick and singular, other times there are three or four that layer parallel and analogously to one another. These snowy lines you see are called contrails. This phenomenon occurs during the flight of an aircraft. You can see their shape manifesting from underneath a plane, shooting out from the turbine engines and clinging to the sky from the stabilizer. Closer to the plane, these condensation trails appear quite opaque. As you follow the string left by the plane, the white masses seem to thin out and blur, eventually fading away at some point. Sometimes we don’t get to see them as they develop and all we can see is their fading proportions of a thing come and gone.

The image displays a partly cloudy sky as the sun is setting, creating a bottom to top gradient of yellow, green, blue and pink. Dozens of contrails diagonally cross from one side of the image to the other.
David Peter Robertson, “Aircraft contrails make clouds brighter – new study”, 21 July 2016. Photograph. Shutterstock. The Conversation, [9 Feb 2021].
So, what exactly are they? High-flying planes create contrails between roughly 25,000 and 50,000 feet from the earth’s surface. At these high altitudes, the air is incredibly thin and cold. At the extreme altitude of 25,000 feet, only 8.1% of the oxygen is effective in comparison to 20.9% of oxygen here at ground level. The temperatures of planes that reach these levels of elevation range between -30.0°C to -70.0°C. A plane’s combustion chamber in a turbine engine produces an exhaust that is released into the atmosphere. Within them is a chemical cocktail of various air pollutants such as carbon soot, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. The exhaust emissions can reach a piping hot peak temperature of 900°C. The frigid temperatures of the sky in combination with the sweltering outflow of chemicals and water vapor from the aircraft cause an endothermic reaction that causes the molecules to solidify. Thus, ice is formed. This kind of reaction is the same that you’d see here on the ground when you watch your breath move outwards in a foggy puff on a winter’s day.

Perhaps, it is not quite the same. When we breathe out, what we emit is mostly carbon dioxide. Contrails are hardly as innocent in their chemical excretion, at least to some people. There has been a surge in recent history in conspiracy theorists who have coined the nickname “chemtrails” for what I’ve been referring to as contrails. These individuals believe that the contents of these emissions are far more insidious than they appear. They have grown suspicious that the government has been using geoengineering to spray harmful chemicals over dense populations to control both the weather and the health condition of populations. Overwhelmingly, this group of people is mystified and concerned about the sudden appearance of contrails and their varying endurance in the atmosphere.

Interestingly, the reason for the fluctuation duration in which a contrail can survive has nothing to do with the type of aircraft that produces it. Instead, it is connected to the weather. Scientists attest that the long contrails that seem to stretch from one side of the sky to another for kilometers on end without rapidly disappearing are because of a humid condition within the atmosphere. The moist air can support the lifespan of a contrail for up to an hour because the humidity condenses outwards the farther the plane moves away. It also gives us inside into the weather we may be soon experiencing, as higher humidity is an indication of an approaching storm. If we pay attention to the sky, the creation of artificial clouds by human-built flying machines can inform us of approaching natural weather conditions. In lower humidity climates, the contrails seem to disappear as instantaneously as they appear, fading within minutes or even seconds. In this case, sunny afternoons seem likely to be on the horizon.

Conspiracy theorists who have felt panicked by these counterfeit clouds have been resisted by arguably reliable scientific explanations that deny the intended expulsion of toxins through aircraft release mechanisms. The physics of the phenomenon of a contrail formation allows us to understand their seemingly random appearance and disappearance. Notwithstanding this evidence, scientists are unable to fully dispel the harm that these emissions could indeed have over the environment – both that of humans and wildlife. The disastrous effects of climate change have been gaining serious momentum and validity. We can no longer shield our eyes from the collapsing ecosystems from human domination and destruction. Contrails serve as a visual demonstration of how humans can impact and manipulate the environment. The emissions produced by planes are likened to the emissions produced by motor vehicles. Both planes and cars create their mechanical energy from burning fossil fuels in their engines. The burning of fossil fuel is one of the earth’s biggest foes, the main instigator of the greenhouse effect. Airplane contrails do this by means of a process called cirrus radiative force. This is a negative warming effect in which the heat from the earth’s lower atmosphere becomes trapped. During the daytime, contrails reflect the light from the sun from ever reaching the ground, which is more of a positive and neutralizing effect. But at night time, this positive effect from contrails is no longer possible. Contrails are shockingly responsible for the closing gap between daytime and nighttime temperatures and their cumulative carbon footprint is detrimental to the earth’s ability to cool itself. Our human impact on the environment has become dangerously close to being completely irreversible not only to detriment of the animal kingdom but to humans too. Lasting contrails that cling to the blue yonder could therefore metaphorically represent the irremediable course we are currently on that is fatalistic to all living things. We must reach into the sky of possibilities and the wealth of eco-friendly knowledge that we possess to help reinstall hope for future generations. We as mankind must quickly and effectively unite to create sustainable practices.

Images displays a four engine white airplane against a blue sky. The airplane is creating four contrails from each of the engines.
L. Sannes, “Contrails are left behind by high-flying jets and can contribute to climate change. A new study proposes a way to cut the planes’ impact”, 27 April 2020. Photograph. Getty Images. Science News For Students, [9 Feb 2021].
For many cultures, the sky is significant for its mythical and religious symbolism. The Heavens often represent an eternal and infinitive space representative of one’s own immortality and transcendent capabilities. From a spiritual point of view, planes and their surviving contrails could be perceived as an invasive species amidst these once untouchable spaces. Man has achieved the ability of flight once belonging only to birds. Through this discovery, we have been able to travel abroad speedily and with lower risks of injury or death along the way to distant worlds. The contrail symbolizes movement. The plane that made it was once somewhere and is in transit to another. During the Covid-19 pandemic, traveling has become something that is both globally missed. Many of us are isolated from family, unable to fly to see family or close friends because of quarantine and lockdown procedures. We are confined mostly to our homes, and so the prospect of vagabondage for travel enthusiasts is not only limited but something to be unsure of. Seeing contrails in the sky reminds us of how the pandemic came to be. We live in a world that politically and economically benefits from globalization, and yet because our world operates in this way, the coronavirus thrived in favour of our customs. The coronavirus greeted every country through air travel. Flights no longer remind us of adventure, safe gatherings, and freedom, and thus, contrails have lost this similar effect. We see contrails and immediately it makes us both weary and suspicious of potential mass spreaders of the virus.

Contrails, like many other things, can be viewed in the context of the environment they appear in. Contrails perhaps were something to look past and ignore before the pandemic, when we were consumed by our everyday tasks and responsibilities. The negative effects of contrail emissions were perhaps ignored for the benefit of transporting goods in a global capitalist system. Yet, in the stillness and uncertainty of times like these, we have been gifted the ability to slow down and see ordinary things differently. Contrails are of no exception. Conceptually, the visual stimulus of contrails reflects the social facts that define our circumstances. Perhaps, we will never experience flying transnationally the same again as we are now acutely aware of the potential health and environmental impact that it has. There is information about contrails that are invisible to us until we research it from the perspective of a scientist. Taking a second look at these every day seemingly uninteresting occurrences, we can no longer reduce our perception to a mere glimpse, and instead, we begin to hone in on the skill of multidimensional visualization.

Works Cited:

Matthias Tesche. Aircraft Contrails Make Clouds Brighter – New Study, 21 May 2019. Photograph. The Conversation,

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.