Here’s a climate change story that has it all. It’s common knowledge at this point that airplanes emit huge quantities of greenhouse gases—anyone that’s attempted to calculate their “carbon footprint” will know just how much CO2 a single flight can produce—but did you know that a plane’s contrails have a greater warming effect than do the emissions associated with burning jet fuel? NASA’s Richard Moore told the BBC that “[we] know these contrails and cirrus clouds have a warming effect on the Earth’s climate, and it’s currently thought the warming effect associated with those clouds is more significant than all of the carbon dioxide emitted by aviation since the first powered flights began.”
Those contrails tend to spread out behind a plane and form thin cirrus clouds that can trap more of the sun’s radiation in our atmosphere, a somewhat surprising variable that’s emblematic of all the curious ways in which we’re still refining our knowledge about how human activities affect our planet’s climate.
But there’s a solution to this problem! As the BBC reports, using more ethanol in jet fuel can help reduce these contrails and therefore prevent these clouds from forming:
Data suggests aircraft burning a mix of aviation kerosene and biofuel could reduce their climate impact.
This would come from a substantial reduction in the production of the sooty particles that make contrails. “Those soot particles serve as nuclei for water vapour in the very cold atmosphere to condense on and for the artificial-looking linear contrails that we see when we look out the window,” explained Richard Moore from Nasa’s Langley Research Center. […]
“Models tells us if you reduce the number concentration of black carbon then you will reduce the number concentration of ice crystals. So this could be a way to mitigate the climate impacts of aviation,” [University of Vienna professor Bernadett Weinzierl] told BBC News.
The basics of climate change are well understood at this point, but the science itself is far from settled—science never is. We are constantly going to refine our understanding of the dizzying number of factors that affect the immensely complicated system that is our climate, and researchers are going to uncover surprising details like the relationship between contrails and warming. But humanity is nothing if not capable of solving problems, and this story illustrates that as well.
Don’t listen to deniers when they tell you climate change isn’t a problem, but at the same time pay no mind to the doomsaying environmentalists who deny our agency in addressing this issue.