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The weather is a fascinating and ever-changing aspect of our world. Scientists and meteorology enthusiasts alike are constantly examining the weather to predict its sometimes volatile nature. Believe it or not, even airplane contrails can be useful in predicting the weather. These contrails are formed from water vapor coming from the exhaust of an airplane. Because contrails develop in the same atmosphere as cirrus clouds, they can help indicate what weather is on the horizon.
The visibility of airplane contrails depends on humidity and temperature. Thin, short-lived airplane contrails indicate low humidity and typically fair weather. Thick, long-lasting contrails, on the other hand, are caused by humid air and may precede a storm.
In recent studies, the formation of contrails has caused some concern, with scientists wondering about their effects on the world’s climate. Research suggests that contrails may contribute to global warming by adding moisture and gases to the air, though just how much contrails affect our weather remains a mystery.
More than just water vapor?
- At cruising altitude, the temperature outside of an airplane is below -40 °F (-40 °C). The formation of contrails is very similar to how your breath would look on a cold day.
- Cirrus clouds can affect the climate by reflecting incoming sunlight and obstructing heat loss from the surface. With heavier air traffic, cloud coverage can increase by up to 20%.
- During World War II, there were reports of extensive contrail coverage making it difficult for pilots to see enemy planes in combat.