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The Untold Impact of Airplanes on Climate


The damage that air traffic causes to the environment goes way beyond carbon dioxide emissions.

When we talk about airplanes and their influence on climate and the environment, the first thing that comes to our mind is greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide in particular. It probably has something to do with the campaign of airline companies to make people pay for carbon offset as part of their tickets. This is just my speculation.

But in any case, it turns out, greenhouse gases are not the only byproduct of flying, which accelerates climate change.

Scientists from the German Institute of Atmospheric Physics calculated that the non-CO2 warming effects from aviation can in fact triple in the coming 30 years.

The team led by Ulrike Burkhardt took into account not only air traffic, but also the location and altitude of the flights. In their opinion, the trail of soot and fumes, which airplanes leave behind them, could be detrimental when it happens at high altitudes.

The scientific back up of this statement comes down to the following. The higher the altitude of the flight, the more likely it is that the water vapor condenses onto these soot particles. In turns, these freeze and form cirrus clouds. The clouds then act as a block preventing the heat radiated by the Earth to escape. Yes, they also act as a barrier that blocks incoming radiation from the sun, but on average cirrus clouds have a net warming effect.

To put this into numbers, the team reported the following results.

The warming effect, which is caused by these clouds, is about to increase from 50 milliwatts per square metre of the earth’s surface in 2006 to 160 mW/m2 by 2050. When compared to what CO2 emissions from aviation will do, the rise will be from 24 mW/m2 in 2006 to 84 mW/m2 by 2050.

Of course, the aviation industry can do something about this. If they decide to impose policies and restrictions, improve fuel efficiency and reduce pollution from engines, it could not be all too bad. The scientific models gave a slightly more optimistic outlook. The warming from contrails drops down to 140 mW/m2 and the warming from CO2 to 60 mW/m2, all by 2050.

Well, it seems the team is not so negative about the whole thing. That is despite the fact that they say their models could actually be underestimating the effect of contrails by 70%. The silver lining- cirrus clouds and contrails use up all available water at high altitudes, and therefore prevent normal cloud formation. If this is really the case, we can see a small drop in the above numbers.

I do not see how the current measures that are in place are going to help counteract these effects. There are a few policies and plans- for example the international scheme Corsia, which aims to reduce emissions from aviation. However, it is so loosely applied and formulated, that many actually use it to cut short on taxes and measures. Something has to change, and someone has to take responsibility. Unfortunately the topic of who that should be is comfortably avoided.

Image (c) Getty


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  1. PS. Chimel, Chem trails are not the top priority of spraying that poison in our atmosphere, thinning the heard and making money is the top priority. nano particle Aluminum and other dangerous elements are being sprayed to cloud seed but the real truth is it is a DIRECT link to Alzheimer’s and Cancer which we all know is rampant around the world. also it is killing the insects that pollinate our crops. follow the money trail. Monsanto, Bilderberg group, the Medical industry and many others. all for profit one death at a time.

  2. I literally can not stop laughing at this BS jargon this site post as if it were solid evidence or even an educated guess within the ball park. it is quite amazing how this fool skipped right over chem trail and the fact the Earth is in a natural warming cycle followed by another mini ice age. this is a proven fact many times over. not only that it is the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere that causes global warming not Co2 levels, quite the opposite. the rise in Co2 is caused by the warming from water vapor.
    in reality the plants on earth are starving as the Co2 levels thousands of years ago were unbelievably high which is why the earth was lush and green.
    print more and more lies all the time.

  3. So, basically, chemtrails don’t work, the Illuminati behind our governments could not control Mila with their psychotropic contrail chemical so that she wouldn’t even be even think about writing such an article. There’s another conspiracy theory gone…

    Short range and domestic routes will probably start moving to electrical planes by 2040-2050, and it could be a game changer, since the most frequent (and polluting) traffic is business short hops, like a trip from London to another European city where train may not be convenient or fast enough.

    I doubt we can get autonomous flying by then, but imagine if we could reduce two of the most important operating costs: fuel and piloting, while at the same time using zero fossil fuel? It would be a killer.
    You can also imagine other air traffic models, like almost on-demand small planes for any destination, including smaller towns that don’t have a big international airport but may host a famous convention once a year.
    If you have x number of passengers for a specific destination, you can fly them all in a plane designed for that capacity instead of having dozens of empty seats, or in several smaller planes, at the same time or spread over several hours, etc.

    Planes could also work the same way as semi-trailers for goods or passengers: People enter some kind of air container or wagon, which is then picked up by the plane, like a ferry picks up train wagons, and transported. Upon arrival, people who have another correspondence can leave the container, and the remaining people can be moved to the metro station without leaving their air wagon. That’s just making air transportation more efficient, not improving the carbon balance by much, but I am just mentioning it because it seems we haven’t really optimized this form of transportation and a lot of progress will be made on all fronts, including on the carbon balance issue.

    We may not have autonomous flying for passengers this half of the century, but we’ll probably start seeing it for goods, for Amazon or other transporters. And in that case, the container system that drives straight from the airport to the transporter’s depot makes a lot of economical sense.


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