Re-routing flights so they produce smaller condensation trails may reduce their climate impact even if it means flying further and emitting more CO2.
The thinly shaped clouds, called contrails, only form in regions of the sky where the air is very cold and moist, which is often in the ascending air around high pressure systems and they can sometimes stay in the air for many hours, eventually spreading out to resemble natural, wispy clouds.
A study in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2010 showed that the amount of global warming caused by contrails could be as large, or even larger, that the contribution from aviation CO2 emissions.
And now researchers from the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology have shown that aircraft contribute less to global warming by avoiding the places where are produced, a fact that could have important implications for government climate policy.
Dr Emma Irvine, co-author of the paper in journal Environmental Research Letters, said: “If we can predict the regions where contrails will form, it may be possible to mitigate their effect by routing aircraft to avoid them.
“Our work shows that for a rounded assessment of the environmental impact of aviation, more needs to be considered than just the carbon emissions of aircraft.”
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.
The researchers estimate that smaller aircraft can fly much further to avoid forming contrails than larger aircraft. For example, for a small aircraft that is predicted to form a contrail 20 miles long, if an alternative route adds less than 200 miles onto the route (10 times the length of contrail that would have been produced) then the alternative route would have a smaller climate impact.
For larger aircraft, which emit more CO2 than smaller aircraft for each mile flown, the alternative route could still be preferable, but only if it added less than 60 miles (3 times the contrail length) onto the route.
Irvine added: “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.
“The mitigation targets currently adopted by governments all around the world do not yet address the important non-CO2 climate impacts of aviation, such as contrails, which may cause a climate impact as large, or even larger, than the climate impact of aviation CO2 emissions.
“We believe it is important for scientists to assess the overall impact of aviation and the robustness of any proposed mitigation measures in order to inform policy decisions. Our work is one step along this road.”