More Aurora Pix Plus The Contrail Vs. “chemtrail” Controversy

The International Space Station leaves a trail of light in this 30-second time exposure as it cruises below the Big Dipper last night. Photo: Bob King

At 9:40 last night the International Space Station flew by while I was taking pictures of the aurora. Because it passed almost overhead, the station was especially bright, outdoing Jupiter for sure. Its orbit is currently about 250 miles high, so if you’re lucky enough to get an overhead pass, the ISS will be as close to you as it can – 250 miles away.

A pass off to the north or south or when the station is off in the eastern or western sky is generally not as bright. because you have to add in the extra “horizontal” distance plus the altitude.

The clouds gobbled up what was left of the northern sky and northern lights late last night from my town. Hopefully, you had clear skies. Judging by the index of magnetic activity (Kp), the aurora continued well into the night. Tonight space weather forecasters are calling for another chance of aurora. Quiet conditions return Saturday and Sunday. More aurora pix are included at the end of this article.

The trail the ISS made in the photo reminds me of an airplane condensation trail or contrail. It’s fatter than usual because sunlight reflecting from the spacecraft lit up a high, thin cloud layer at my location. Earlier Thursday I was witness to real contrails as four separate transcontinental jets crossed the sky within the span of 10 minutes.

A jet trailing a contrail flies over another contrail left by a lower-flying aircraft. Water vapor condenses into a cloud behind the plane as it chilled by -40 F temperatures and colder experienced at 26,000 feet and higher. You create your own "mouth contrails" when you see your breath on a cold morning. Photo: Bob King

Contrails are created when warm water vapor created during the burning of jet fuel condenses into strings of artificial clouds in the wake of a high-flying aircraft. Real clouds form in a similar way – water evaporated from land and lakes by sunlight rises upward; when it reaches colder air aloft, it condenses into the visible form of a cloud.

Two jets with contrails yesterday over Duluth flying in opposite directions. Photo: Bob King

Both contrails and clouds require tiny nuclei – dust, soot, etc. – to serve as sites for water to condense upon. For contrails, the exhaust particles from fuel combustion are right at hand, which is why contrails form so quickly behind an airplane.

Sadly, there’s a massive hoax and disinformation campaign online and elsewhere characterizing contrails as “chemtrails”. Supposedly our government is enlisting pilots to “aerial spray” the U.S. with virus and strange chemicals to study their effects on humans. Really?

There’s no scientific evidence to support this idea, just mistaken impressions and the usual fear-mongering. Many contrails disappear quickly because the air at altitudes of 26,000 feet and up is extremely dry. Sometimes however temperature, higher humidity or an approaching weather front conspire to not only prolong the trails but cause them to balloon into large rafts of cirrus clouds. These are the ones a few people are calling “chemtrails”. We’ve all seen these, and they’re perfectly normal. No chemicals needed – just the right atmospheric conditions.

Satellite image of jet contrails over the southern U.S. on January 29, 2004. Credit: Langley Research Center

If you’re still looking to point the blame finger at contrails, there may be a real scientific reason to do so. They appear to contribute to global warming. When they fan into clouds, they act like real clouds and trap heat rising from the Earth causing surface temperatures to rise. Weather service data reveal that the temperature of the surface and lower atmosphere rose by almost 0.5°F per decade between 1975 and 1994 because of contrails. So yes, they may affect our climate in a small way, but that’s a far cry from the bogus claims of chemical spraying.

Aurora (green-yellow) and clouds colored by sodium vapor light pollution photographed last night from Boulder Lake north of Duluth. Thanks and credit to Brett Grandson
Part of a thick auroral arc seen from Rice Lake Township north of Duluth last night. Photo: Bob King

14 Responses

  1. Noel Hamiel

    Bob, I have been meaning to write and compliment you on your site for some time.
    Thank you for the great photos, as well as the explanations of the celestial sights.
    I see you are at the Duluth Tribune. I have visited your city, and newspaper. The setting for your city is gorgeous, and I’m sure the city is a great place to live.
    Five years ago, I retired from the news after 35 years in the field.
    Keep up the excellent work!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Noel,
      Well, thank you! I appreciate you writing and happy you’ve found the blog helpful. 35 years in the field – were you a reporter?

  2. madscientist5580

    My wife and I were admiring the clear sky and all the stars that were out. We just happened to catch the space station moving overhead. She was supper excited. I had not seen it since high school.

    Had I know there was aurora, we would have headed down to Caribou Lake for that show, too!

  3. Linda

    Just a comment on your blog about chemtrails. My brother was a navy seal and currently works for the government and a good friend of mine was an air force pilot. They both have told me that these are NOT normal contrails. What expertise do you have to come to this conclusion that this is merely a hoax? I see these almost daily and in specific patterns in my area and the soil has tested for grotesquely high amounts of aluminium and barium, which is what is being sprayed. In fact, a ban on this activity was brought to our local legislation and they determined that they were unable to do anything being that this was a federal issue. Furthermore, they have asked people to start taking samples of soil, water and have blood tests done to check for elevated levels of some of the compounds being sprayed. Not every conspiracy theory is false…I beg to differ with you on this and considering your credentials or lack thereof, your comment means very little on this topic…

    1. astrobob

      Linda,
      Thanks for you comments. My blog was based on the fact that there is no credible scientific evidence behind any of the “chemtrail” claims. It’s been thoroughly refuted by climate scientists, the U.S. Air Force and others. As you might guess, my credentials don’t include a degree in meteorology, but I make sure to examine credible sources before publishing the blog.
      I’ve read about the chemtrail hoax for years and studied the photos people claim are abnormal trails. I’ve seen these same trails and many more for decades (I enjoy watching and photographing contrails)and they’re easily explained as water vapor condensing and creating small clouds under differing conditions of humidity, air pressure, etc. There’s no need to invoke poisons or chemicals. The hoax reminds me of last year’s hoax/disinformation campaign about how Comet Elenin caused earthquakes and hid an invisible planet. These also had no basis in science. Governments in the U.S. and other countries have tried to be forthcoming and explain that contrails are a normal phenomenon, but of course that’s seen as yet another conspiracy. If you’d like to read more, please check out this link — http://goo.gl/czHYo. It was one of several sources I used.

  4. Linda

    That pdf document proves nothing. I’m sorry..that just doesn’t do it for me…especially when I have people on the inside telling me otherwise. Do you actually believe the government tells you everything they do? Check out information on Evergreen Aviation. At one point in time they listed aerial spraying for weather modification on their website as a service they had been contracted for and have since removed this. I can tell you that I saw this with my very own eyes as well as thousands of others. Google that. In fact you can find the exact content that had been copied from the site when it was up. I respectfully disagree with you on this subject based on my information sources who work for these same agencies claiming publicly that these chemtrails don’t exist as well as my own extensive research on the subject.

    1. astrobob

      Linda,
      Disagreeing is fine. It provokes discussion. One thing to consider is this. Over the years I’ve heard or read of police officers or other officials witnessing UFOs. They’re cited as reliable sources of information because, well, they’re officers and we respect their training. But police officers, however well they’ve been trained in observing and interpreting human behavior, aren’t necessarily more reliable or accurate in reporting astronomical phenomena than anyone else not familiar with the night sky. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people call or write me about an apparition in the sky they were certain was a UFO or brand new phenomenon when it turned out it was the planet Venus, a sun dog or other natural event or object. Sometimes these folks walk away completely unconvinced, certain I’m trying to cover something up. That’s ALWAYS the furthest thing from my mind.

      My point is this: people not familiar with or lacking the scientific background to interpret something like contrails – and that includes some people who work for the government – often hear something or look at it for the first time and are easily convinced there’s no natural explanation. Until there’s hard evidence of “chemtrails” that can be evaluated by scientists in the field it remains hearsay and scary rumor.

      Like you, I don’t believe everything the government says, but when there are independent evaluations of a long-known and understood topic like contrails, and when my own observations confirm what I’ve learned, I’ll lean toward a natural explanation. Consider how many people would have to be in on this plot if it were true: scientists, government agents, pilots and engineers at independent firms who designed the planes and built the engines. And where does the supposedly toxic spray come from? Are toxins mixed into the jet fuel? Would that be wise or even effective since fuel is burned to power the plane? If not jet fuel, wouldn’t aerial spraying devices have to built into the thousands of civilian jets that crisscross the country every day. Are pilots flipping switches inside the cockpit to dispense the toxins when they reach the right altitude?

      Do you really believe that could be happening or is a natural explanation more likely?

      1. Jenna

        In regards to chemtrails also known as geo-engineering or Stratospheric sulfate aerosols one can look at patents and see that this technology exists. A person can also do a basic search on the topic of geo-engineering being used for weather modification by countries such as China.
        If one is interested in learning more about the topic of chemtrails youtube the movie “What In The World Are They Spraying” to hear scientists discussing the applications for such technology.

        Contrails should disappear not make the sky hazy.

        Thanks Astro Bob for the amazing Aurora pics!

        1. astrobob

          Jenna,
          The technology and plausibility of geo-engineering technology is being discussed, but it clearly hasn’t been implemented except perhaps experimentally. Although the video is obviously slanted toward government conspiracy, if you listen carefully to the scientists shown discussing the matter, they’re very clear about the need to learn any side effects of potential spraying of say, aluminum particles to stave off global warming, BEFORE actually doing so. I’m glad they’re being careful to research the idea – that’s how science works. The video also has meteorologists offering clear explanations for certain military training exercises where “chaff” is dumped (not chemicals by the way) to avoid radar detection by the enemy. However, it’s deliberately edited to make it look scary. I’m sorry but it’s just more hype and fear-mongering in a very official-looking package.
          A couple other clues about the video maker’s agenda:
          Normal contrail photos/video are used as background illustrations when “spraying”, “chemtrails” or whatever is being discussed, implying to the casual viewer that normal contrails are somehow abnormal. This is particularly underhanded. There are also many references to “they” as in “they” believe that we’re being sprayed with chemicals or “they” think the government is behind it. “They” are not a source but rumor.
          PS. All that aside, thanks for your nice comment about the aurora photos. Glad you enjoy.

  5. Pete

    Hi Astrobob.

    I’m totally with you on the chemtrail nonsense. It really is quite scary how quickly people can believe something when a few youtube channels start posting endless videos claiming to have evidence… They always end up showing normal contrails but somehow claim it as evidence, I’m not sure how they make this leap from film to evidence, but it hooks a lot of gullible people.

    The really scary thing is that these people then go on to claim to be experts and recruit yet more people. Its a great example of how a cult or early religion gets started.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Pete,
      Yes, it’s a lot of magical thinking with no hard evidence. Very distressing. “Chemtrails” are but one in a long line of crazy claims. Just look at the denigration of one of humanity’s greatest achievements, the moon landings or the nuttiness surrounding Comet Elenin last year. Not just science, but critical thinking should be high on the list what kids need to know certainly by the time they leave high school.

  6. burr

    nice blog bob, something here to consider from Reuters

    “solar radiation management”/”geo-engineering”
    “Sunshade” to fight climate change costed at $5 bln a year
    Planes or airships could carry sun-dimming materials high into the atmosphere for an affordable price tag of below $5 billion a year as a way to slow climate change, a study indicated on Friday
    New aircraft, specially adapted to high altitudes, would probably be the cheapest delivery system with a price tag of $1 to $2 billion a year,

    http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/08/30/climate-sunshade-idINDEE87T0K420120830

    1. astrobob

      Thanks Burr for the interesting link. If we ever do try this, hopefully we’ll have a good idea of the consequences of such a huge atmospheric engineering feat. Me, I’d rather we hit the source of the problem – fossil fuels.

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