A Simple Way to Make a Big Difference
In a world affected by climate change, every little tweak we make counts. While we’re still sorting out jet fuel, there’s another plane travel impact we could cut back on rather easily, according to a new study.
Getting planes to fly just 2,000 feet (610 metres) lower could cut the climate impact of the contrails they leave behind by a whopping 59 percent.
Even better, only around 2 percent of flights would need to make the adjustment – those flights where contrails are most likely to form, linger around, and contribute to the warming of the planet.
Contrails (condensation trails) come about when the hot exhaust gas from airplanes meets the cold, low-pressure air in the atmosphere. Moisture condenses on the black carbon in the fumes, forming the ice particles we see as white streaks in the sky.
While most contrails vanish in minutes, some can stick around for up to 18 hours, mixing with other contrails and cirrus clouds. This forms ‘contrail cirrus’, which shifts the temperature balance of Earth through what’s known as radiative forcing.
This radiative forcing happens when contrails reflect incoming shortwave radiation back out to space, while trapping longwave infrared radiation on Earth, causing a warming effect.
“According to our study, changing the altitude of a small number of flights could significantly reduce the climate effects of aviation contrails,” says civil engineer Marc Stettler, from Imperial College London in the UK. “This new method could very quickly reduce the overall climate impact of the aviation industry.