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Changing Aircraft Flight Paths could Reduce Climate Impact

June 25, 2014; 1:37 PM ET

A new research study from the University of Reading (UK) indicates that aircraft can reduce their global warming impact by avoiding areas where contrails are produced, even if it means flying farther and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Aircraft contrails cover the Southeast U.S. sky as seen by satellite.

Just like natural clouds, contrails reflect some of the Sun's incoming energy, resulting in a cooling effect, but also trap some of the infrared energy that radiates from Earth into space, therefore having a warming effect. Detailed calculations indicate that generally the warming effect wins over the cooling effect, according to EurekAlert.

Aircraft contrails will only form in areas of the sky where the air is very cold and moist. These areas can be easily identified by the tools that weather forecasters use everyday.

Recent research indicates that the amount of global warming caused by contrails could be as large or larger than the contribution from aviation carbon dioxide emissions.

Key excerpt from the EurekAlert report....

"Comparing the relative climate impacts of CO2 and contrails is not trivial. One complicating factor is their vastly differing lifetimes. Contrails may last for several hours, whilst CO2 can last for decades. In terms of mitigating these impacts, air traffic control agencies would need to consider whether such flight-by-flight re-routing is feasible and safe, and weather forecasters would need to establish if they can reliably predict when and where contrails are likely to form, said Dr. Emma Irvine of the University of Reading.


This research was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or


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