Altering the altitudes of less than 2% of flights could reduce contrail-linked climate change by 59 per cent, says a new Imperial College London study.
Contrails could be as bad for the climate as CO2 emissions
When hot exhaust gases from aircraft meet the cold, low-pressure air of the atmosphere, they produce white streaks in the sky called ‘condensation trails’, or contrails. Those Aircraft contrails could be as bad for the climate as their CO2 emissions.
Most contrails last only a few minutes, but some mix with others and linger for up to eighteen hours. Previous research suggests that contrails and the clouds they help form have as much of a warming impact on the climate as aviation’s cumulative CO2 emissions.
The key difference: While CO2 impact the atmosphere for hundreds of years, contrails are short-lived and could quickly be reduced.
Contrail-caused harm could be reduced by up to 90%
Imperial College London-led research has found that flight altitude changes of just 2,000 feet could lessen their effect. Combined with using cleaner aircraft engines, contrail-caused harm to the climate could be reduced by up to 90%, the researchers say.
Lead author Dr Marc Stettler, of Imperial’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said: “This new method could very quickly reduce the overall climate impact of the aviation industry.”
The researchers have used computer simulations to predict how altering aircraft altitudes might reduce the number of contrails and how long they linger. Contrails only form and persist in thin layers of the atmosphere that have very high humidity. Therefore, aircraft could avoid these regions. Dr Stettler said: “A really small proportion of flights are responsible for the vast majority of contrail climate impact, meaning we can focus our attention on them.”
“Targeting the few flights that cause the most harmful contrails, as well as making only small altitude changes, could significantly reduce the effect of contrails on global warming”, said the study’s first author, Roger Teoh from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The reduced contrail formation would offset more than he CO2 released by the extra fuel.
Dr Stettler said: “We’re conscious that any additional CO2 released into the atmosphere will have a climate impact stretching centuries into the future, so we’ve also calculated that if we only target flights that wouldn’t emit extra CO2, we can still achieve a 20% reduction in contrail forcing.”
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