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Don Paul: No, you really don't need to be worried about 'chemtrails'

I’ve avoided the chemtrails topic for the same reason I won’t poke a stick into a hornet nest. Hornet stings are painful, but the sting of chemtrails believers is something from which I’ve been hiding. This article may prove I was wise to hide.

If you’ve never heard of the chemtrails conspiracy, it’s the belief the government is spraying us all with varying types of nasty, toxic chemicals easily visible to the naked eye.

This is what chemtrails look like.

The problem is, those are not “chemtrails.” They are, pure and simple, contrails. Contrails — or condensation trails — are vapor trails, mainly from aircraft engines. (Sometimes, even wing surfaces in turbulent air can cause the appearance of short-lived, weak contrails.) Their appearance and longevity are dependent on atmospheric temperature and humidity at the aircrafts’ altitude, as well as the air traffic density.

It’s not that complicated, really. Water vapor in aircraft exhaust condenses quickly into ice particles upon entering the subzero temperatures at altitude. More on this in a bit.

There is great confusion among conspiracists on the broad topic of atmospheric geo-engineering. Geo-engineering is a set of multidisciplinary ideas to, for example, possibly reduce the impact of atmospheric warming years down the road, or to improve rainfall probabilities in parched regions. Past experiments have been deemed either unsuccessful or too risky, such as seeding hurricanes out over the ocean with silver iodide crystals. This was done in the hope hurricanes would expend more of their energy safely far from land by “raining themselves out.”

Those experiments were carried out because of previous proven success using silver iodide. Author Kurt Vonnegut’s brother Bernard was a pioneering atmospheric physicist at General Electric after World War II. He experimented with silver iodide as a substance that could be seeded into marginally moist clouds, turning them into rainmakers or turning minor rainmakers into more prolific rainmakers. The silver iodide helps water vapor nucleate into raindrops. Cloud seeding has been used with real success in semi-arid regions to help agricultural productivity, when the right kind of clouds are present. (Vonnegut went on to become a meteorology professor at SUNY Albany.)

In the Vietnam War, however, the United States conducted a classified mission, Operation Popeye, over a five-year period of seeding thunderstorms over the Ho Chi Minh Trail to extend the monsoon season and make it more difficult for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army to transport soldiers and material along that trail.

A worker in a lift is silhouetted against a contrail left in the sky by a jet. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Cloud seeding, still used today, is a tool of geoengineering. Wikipedia can give you an idea of what the process looks like.

No one is saying geo-engineering isn’t real. It probably will grow in the future. One controversial idea is solar geo-engineering, which theoretically would inject tiny reflective particles into the stratosphere to help reflect some of the sun’s solar energy back into space. No nation or group of nations has undertaken such experiments because such a technology could have unforeseen complications, such as causing too much cooling. Until much more is known, this kind of solar engineering remains only on a drawing board.

So, geo-engineering is real. Chemtrails aren’t. The conspiracy theories include secret government spray programs to poison us or make us ill, or to distribute substances used for thought control. The conspiracy sometimes even involves meteorologists like me who “know the truth and are keeping it from the public”! Some meteorologists have received death threats because passions run high among conspiracists. I like to keep my received threats tied to blown forecasts.

Of course, there are very obvious problems with the conspiracy. How do the conspirators themselves stay safe from these toxins, even assuming such substances could reach the surface in significant  concentrations? Do these conspirators live in bubbles? Keep their cars’ HVAC systems on recirculate at all times? Who gets to stay out of the way of these molecules, and how would they do it?

We know what contrails are made of, as aircraft emissions are heavily regulated. Contrails are made mainly of ice, carbon dioxide, smoke, small amounts of unburned hydrocarbons, oxides of nitrogen and carbon monoxide. There has never been any documented evidence of secret toxins, microbes or drugs in any samples.

Some believers are alarmed by the persistence and spread of these trails in the sky. If the atmosphere is sufficiently humid at altitude, the contrails will last for hours, spreading out with upper-level winds. When that kind of persistence occurs, some cooling beneath occurs as with any other daytime cloud cover.

A social science article last year by Harvard researcher Germot Wagner stated that around 60 percent of all discourse on social media about geo-engineering was conspiratorial in nature. The real toxins in the air come from sources mainly on the ground, such as coal-fired power plants. China has been suffering many tens of thousands of premature deaths per year in quite a number of their cities due to trapped pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, from these plants.

I hesitate to even call chemtrails junk science, because there is no science to them. Belief in chemtrails is, unfortunately, tied to at least partial scientific illiteracy, but it’s also tied to some social beliefs steeped in paranoia. I have to admit; some paranoia might be understandable, in light of history.

Me? I’m paranoid about Rutgers football and Doppler radar … the kind of Doppler radar state troopers use on the 290 when I’m running late.

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