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Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Why I love Jet-Trails

The Gavel's Diatribe acts as the satirical medium for short rants over topics ranging from complete triviality to utmost importance.

 

Picture this: waking up bright and early, excited to go about your day on a beautiful, sunny day without a cloud in the sky. As a Boston resident, these days are few and far between, so when we occasionally get one, I make sure to enjoy them to the fullest. My favorite part of these days is when I look up and see the beautiful baby blue sky illuminated by the sun—and it's directly covered by jet trails.

 

On clear days, the sky, busy with commercial and private flights, becomes riddled with jet trails, the white wispy lines that are a byproduct of air travel. Many of us don't take into consideration what these little white lines are in the sky, simply overlooking them as if they are a part of daily life. While these trails may look harmless, they are deceitfully insidious. Resembling clouds, many don't take into consideration how awful jet trails are for the environment. A recent study looking into aviation's contributions to global warming between 2000-2018 concluded that jet trails create 57% of the sector's warming impact. This contribution is significantly more impactful to the environment than the CO2 emissions that result from burning fuels. These condensation trails, or contrails, are produced by the exhaust from the engines of airplanes, which in turn create an invisible thermal blanket across the sky. Despite the fact that these only last for a short time period, jet trails have a major impact on rising atmospheric temperatures.

 

Contrails are human-made clouds that form only under the right conditions. Depending on the weather, contrails may not form, or they may stick around, slowly spreading, creating a thin layer of ice clouds that trap heat from the Earth's surface. According to a recent article from YaleEnviornment360, Bernd Kärcher, a scientist at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Germany, states that contrail cirrus clouds, jet trails, cover 0.6% of the global skies at any given time. In areas of high air traffic, these can merge and cover air spaces roughly the size of Indiana, lasting for hours to days. Like naturally occurring cirrus clouds, contrail cirrus clouds have two effects on the climate, reflecting sunlight back into space and trapping heat from leaving the Earth's surface, causing a warming or cooling effect depending on the time of day. According to research from Penn State, when contrails are present, they can increase or reduce temperatures during the night and day by 3 degrees Celsius. 

 

While this issue may seem inevitable or unpreventable, researchers from YaleEnviornment360 have provided a cheap and effective solution to the issue, one that could revolutionize air travel in the next decade. This solution involves diverting aircraft from areas of the globe where contrails are most likely to occur. However, currently, airplanes fly on the shortest routes at altitudes that minimize fuel burn, so by changing flight patterns, there is a real risk of increases in CO2 emissions. Despite this fact, in retrospective studies of real flights, senior scientists at NASA Ames Research Center Banavar Sridhar found that by flying lower altitudes, where the air is warmer, we could reduce 35% of contrails for an extra fuel burn of only 0.23%. If executed properly, this could lead to an overall reduction in warming; as Volker Grewe at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics analyzed, 800 transatlantic flights over various seasons found that there could've been a 10% reduction in warming for only a 1% increase in operating costs.

As we sneak closer and closer to the global increase of 1.5 degrees outlined in the Paris Agreement, working to limit jet trails could be a step in the right direction to staying below this goal. However, if we continue to allow corporations to go unregulated, they will have no incentive to work towards achieving this goal, meaning we must step in and regulate these companies for the sake of the environment and the continuation of humanity. Knowing this, the next time you step outside and see jet trails covering the natural blue sky, don't brush them off; remember the harm they are doing to the environment and fight for a change.

Economics and Political Science Double Major with specific interests in international relations, environmentalism, and current events.

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