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What Are Chemtrails Made Of?

Believers in chemtrails say those trails are actually clouds of chemicals used by the government for nefarious purposes. But as Carl Sagan says, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof."

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
Episode #294

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 everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of shutterstock.

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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt is an extragalactic astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Virginia.

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