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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Contrails. Streaks in the sky. How to fight them

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Fighting contrails may be easier than we thought. Scientists have calculated that routing commercial flights to avoid formation has surprisingly low costs. Contrails significantly contribute to global warming.

Commercial flights have multiple impacts on the environment. Airplanes flying at high altitudes not only emit greenhouse gases, but also leave contrails behind them. Not every flight leads to their formation – for them to form, the air must be sufficiently moist. Over areas of heavy air traffic, these plumes can combine to form cirrus clouds that act as a heat-trapping blanket.

The simplest way to combat them is to change the route of jet aircraft to prevent the formation of contrails, but according to some circles this action would be too expensive. The authors of a study published in the journal “Environmental Research: Infrastructure and Sustainability” reached slightly different conclusions.

Slight increase in costs

The study's authors used weather and satellite data to create computer models and algorithms to determine whether planes could be diverted to prevent contrails. Based on this information, scientists simulated 85,000 flights at altitudes between 8,500 and 12,500 meters, comparing the costs of re-routed and unchanged flights.

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As it turned out, flying to reduce contrails by 73 percent would increase fuel costs by just 0.11 percent and overall operating costs by just 0.08 percent. The researchers also noted that most of the simulated calls did not cross areas of moist air, so they did not have to avoid any parts of the sky. Aircraft rerouting in such a scenario would only cover 14 percent of all flights.

The study was conducted in response to last year's American Airlines experiment. Using the same data, the operator developed tools that told pilots where contrails might be forming and instructed them to avoid them. It turned out that in this way it was possible to reduce the formation of streaks by approximately 54 percent.

Hidden costs

Opponents of the method point out one more issue. It is related to the increased demand for fuel when changing the flight route, which would mean higher greenhouse gas emissions.

– A compromise will have to be found between additional fuel combustion and the reduction of harmful plumes – explained Marc Shapiro from Breakthrough Energy, co-author of the article. – But in this article we wanted to emphasize that this additional fuel consumption is much smaller than we expected.

He added that airlines could use such a tool to make decisions that balance their financial and climate goals. For example, they could allow some flights that produce contrails when the cost of adjusting routes would be particularly high.

MIT Technology Review, techxplore.com, ICL

Main photo source: stock.adobe.com



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