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Could Making Planes Better for the Environment Be This Easy?

Could Making Planes Better for the Environment Be This Easy?
Jennifer Billock

Planes are bad for the environment. We know this. They use a lot of fuel, and they’re followed in the sky by wispy white clouds called contrails, which are the biggest cause of environmental damage in the air travel industry. And as flights continue to increase and they fly further and further, the contrails are only going to get worse. But researchers may finally have a solution: flying planes at different altitudes.

How Are Contrails Formed?

Contrails are essentially streaks of condensation in the sky. When engine exhaust hits the cold air around the plane, water vapor immediately freezes around the exhaust’s black carbon particles, Fast Company reported. That causes the streaks, which remain anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. While they’re in the sky, the contrails are trapping heat from the earth—so instead of getting released through the atmosphere, it sticks around and warms up all the other air around it.

“They are short-lived, but they have a strong effect during the time that they exist,” Marc Stettler, a lecturer on transport and the environment at Imperial College London, told Fast Company. “The fact that they are short-lived also presents an opportunity—it means that the aviation industry could very quickly reduce its overall impact on climate change by addressing contrails.”

How Will an Altitude Change Help?

Stettler discovered that the easiest way to mitigate the damage caused by contrails is to fly some planes at different altitudes: either 2,000 higher or 2,000 feet lower. Contrails only form in specific areas of the sky, and this change would stop them from forming, eliminating their negative effect by up to 59 percent.

“It turns out that the contrail forming regions are relatively thin,” Stettler told Fast Company. “That means that small altitude changes to certain flights could mean that the flight no longer flies through a contrail forming region, meaning that a contrail isn’t formed, or it doesn’t last as long.”

What About Other Environmental Impacts?

Planes also cause damage to the environment because of the carbon emissions of their fuel and engine combustion. The air travel industry will have to work hard to tackle that, as well.

“Our study addresses the contrail-related climate impact,” Stettler told Fast Company. “The aviation industry will also need to address the CO2 emissions, and steps are being taken to do this by more fuel-efficient aircraft, more efficient routing of flights, and sustainable aviation fuels.”


For more information about how to be a greener frequent flyer, head to the Carbon Conscious Travel forum on FlyerTalk

View Comments (4)


  1. mbgaskins

    February 26, 2020 at 4:52 am

    What a bunch of BS. Really, water vapor that is already in the air will cause such catastrophe in such small amounts and such small duration? Air travel is one of the most fuel efficient ways to travel on a per person per mile basis.

    We have much much bigger problems to deal with. Like China and their coal dirty air. Until that is resolved the rest is like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble.

  2. dfwrob

    February 27, 2020 at 1:03 pm

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, inhale, ha ha ha ha ha. Please, I have read some idiotic garbage in my time, but this really does take the cake.

    Since clouds trap heat escaping from the earth, what do they propose we do about them???

    At least they didn’t call them “chemtrails”!!

  3. zyxlsy

    July 26, 2020 at 6:34 pm

    As an MS myself, I find it difficult to believe the scale of this “problem” claimed in this article. These contrails are not covering our sky whatsoever. Their effects are at best minimal. Again, the micro-scale mechanism works, but the actual scale does not.

  4. vinnmann

    July 29, 2020 at 9:42 am

    I wonder if Mr. Stettler would be willing to honestly compare how much heat is trapped from contrails vs naturally occurring conditions. Pretty sure the amount from contrails is less than negligible comparatively.

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