If you’ve never heard of chemtrails, don’t fret. Before spending time in Southern California I hadn’t heard of them either. But whether it’s being in the land of obsession-with-healthy-living, or perhaps just being near a few major airports, I now hear about chemtrails quite frequently in SoCal.
So what are chemtrails? Should we be worried about their effects on our health?
What Are Chemtrails?
Chemtrails, short for chemical trails, are what some call the white trails you see left behind as a plane passes overhead. Believers in the chemical aspect of chemtrails say those trails are actually clouds of chemicals used by the government or someother large scale entity for a variety of nefarious purposes from weather modification, to human population control via sterilization, to even mind control. The theories usually claim that normal jet plane output should dissipate quickly so any clouds that do not disappear immediately must be full of additional, undisclosed substances. Chemtrail theories are not only a U.S.-based phenomena—almost 17% of respondents in an international survey noted a belief in the existence of a “secret large scale atmospheric program” to be at least partly true.
To address this concern, a group of 77 scientists published a report in the journal of Environmental Research Letters after digging through the supposed evidence of the intent to poison us through chemtrails. These scientists are experts in atmospheric science, including the contributions of aircraft to the atmosphere as well as atmospheric processes like how quickly or uniformly chemicals fall through the air to the ground. Of those 77 scientists, 76 said they found no evidence of a “secret large-scale atmospheric program” – that’s 98.7%. Instead, they found that “the data cited as evidence [for such a program] could be explained through other factors, including well-understood physics and chemistry associated with aircraft.” In other words, the evidence pointed to the trails being simply the normally expected result of planes flying through the air.
As for that one scientist? One scientist noted that in one remote location, the levels of barium in the atmosphere were unusually high relative to the levels of barium in the soil. No claims were made that the reason for those elevated levels had to be a large scale chemical operation, but since that scientist was not convinced of a clear reason for the barium to be higher in the atmosphere there, they left the possibility open.
What Are Contrails?
The real name for chemtrails is actually contrails, short for condensation trails, because those clouds are actually mostly the result of the condensation of water vapor when hot exhaust expelled by a jet engine hits the very cold ambient air.
Jet fuel is made of hydrocarbons: molecules made up of a mixture of hydrogen and carbon atoms. When that fuel is burned, the chemical bonds holding those hydrogen and carbon atoms together releases energy to propel the plane forward, and the leftover hydrocarbon pieces get expelled and left to trail behind the plane. Much of the hydrogen combines with available oxygen to form H2O or water which makes up most of contrails.
Contrails are not that different from the exhaust you see coming from a car’s tailpipe on a cold day or even seeing your own breath when temperatures are low. According to the American Chemical Society, contrails are further expected to look different as they pass through regions of the air with different temperatures or humidity. (Similarly, your breath of hot air dissipates more slowly when the air has more moisture in it, but disappear quickly on drier days.)
Contrails are not that different from the exhaust you see coming from a car’s tailpipe on a cold day or even seeing your own breath when temperatures are low.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency notes that contrails are completely safe. However, you are not likely to believe a fact sheet from the EPA if you think the government is behind the attempt to release toxic substances over wide swaths of the population. However, some scientists argue that the number of people required to pull off such a scheme (somewhere in the tens of thousands) would make a large-scale chemtrail effort incredibly difficult to keep secret. What’s more, we all share the same atmosphere, so those implementing the plan would also be putting themselves at risk.
As often noted by astronomer Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” So far, that proof just doesn’t exist for chemtrails.
Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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