October 1, 2011 Issue

Physics To Go 117 - Contrails & global warming

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Physics in Your World

What is a contrail and how does it form? image
image credit: U.S. Air Force; image source; larger image

What is a contrail and how does it form?

The contrails in the photo above were generated by an Air Force C-141 Starlifter. Jet fuel is a mixture of hydrocarbons, which burns to produce carbon dioxide and water vapor. The water vapor condenses upon cooling to form small water droplets--the contrail--which is essentially a cloud. To  learn more, check out What is a contrail and how does it form? from the National Weather Service. Like clouds, contrails can affect global warming--to  find out how, see From Physics Research and Worth a Look.

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Physics at Home

S'Cool: Observing Contrails

Visit NASA's S'Cool: Observing Contrails for images of various cloud types, related information, and cloud observing tips.


From Physics Research

The Contrail Effect image
image credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce; image source (not available); larger image

The Contrail Effect

The false-color image above shows jet contrails in the skies above the mid-Atlantic coast on 1/26/2001. Visit The Contrail Effect to find out how contrails can affect Earth's climate, and how this was investigated after 9/11.

Worth a Look

Aircraft Contrails

Visit Aircraft Contrails from NASA for more information on how contrails can cause global warming. For more from NASA, see Clouds Caused by Aircraft Exhaust May Warm the US Climate.

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