These high-flying clouds are too thin to reflect much sunlight, but ice crystals inside them can trap heat. Unlike low-level clouds that have a net cooling effect, these contrail-formed clouds warm the climate. A study suggests that the net effect of these contrail clouds contributes more to atmospheric warming than all the carbon dioxide CO 2 produced by planes since the dawn of aviation.
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And those effects are predicted to get worse as air traffic—and the resulting cloud coverage—increases: Some estimates suggest global air traffic will quadruple by the year One of the researchers from the study wanted to explore how contrail clouds could affect the climate in the future.
That allowed them to model particular qualities of the humanmade clouds that affected everything from their formation to how they interacted with the rest of the atmosphere. The researchers modeled the effect of global contrail cloud coverage in , a year for which they had accurate aviation data. Then, taking into account predictions for future air traffic and emissions, they modeled the effect of contrail clouds for They found a threefold increase in their warming effect over that time , they report this week in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.
He says the new cloud classification scheme was crucial to the model and its results. But little is known about the relationship between climate warming and cloud coverage, and how atmospheric warming affects temperatures on the surface. What researchers do know is that high levels of soot lead to more and longer-lived contrail cirrus clouds, which could alter weather and climate at the surface, Burkhardt says.
A more likely scenario, Burkhardt says, is that levels of soot and contrail cirrus clouds will continue to rise.
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A United Nations scheme , for example, requires all signatory nations to keep their CO 2 emissions under a certain level, and report them annually, but says nothing about the climate impact from contrails. Burkhardt says that considering contrails in such schemes would be difficult, however, because climate impact varies based on weather, location, and time of day.
One solution, Burkhardt says, is to reroute flights. However, such rerouting may force planes to burn more fuel and release more CO 2.
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