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What Can We Do About Contrails?

Ever since its been discovered that contrails increase global warming, researchers have been trying to figure out what to do about it. Jets affect the weather two ways: by emitting CO2 from their engines and also through their contrails. Contrails trap heat in the atmosphere by reflecting the infrared radiation coming from the Earth's surface. They could be eliminated if aircraft reduced their altitude from about 33,000 feet to between 24,000 feet and 31,000 feet. But lower altitude means denser air and higher air resistance, so planes would have to burn more fuel, giving off more CO2 emissions. This would cancel out the benefits of no contrails.

However, global air traffic is growing by around 3.5% each year, and many of these new flights are long-haul, high-altitude trips, which are the kind that form the most contrails. So by 2050, contrails will have a much greater impact on global warming than CO2 emissions from aircraft engines. This means it may be worthwhile for planes to fly at lower altitudes, even if they do release more greenhouse emissions that way. Robert Noland and his team calculate that if planes flew low enough to leave no contrails behind, their fuel consumption would increase by only 4%, increasing CO2 emissions by the same amount. This would cause a smaller greenhouse effect that if they flew at high altitudes and emitted contrails.

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