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Actually, Contrails Can Be Bad

August 13, 2023

After the Maui Fires Are Extinguished, the Hazards Will Continue

Here on Earth, weather disasters are topping the news. In Norway and Croatia, heavy rains caused severe flooding. In Spain, the third major heat wave of the summer caused temperatures in Valencia to reach 46 Celsius. Huge forest fires burned across Portugal.  In China, numerous people were killed by flooding and mudslides from heavy rain, including 33 people who died in Beijing. Flooding in Myanmar since mid-July from monsoon rains has displaced tens of thousands.

Damage in Lahaina harbor on the island of Maui following a devastating wildfire  |  Credit: U.S. Coast Guard Hawai'i Pacific District 14

In Hawai’i, wildfires on Maui claimed at least 93 lives as of August 13, making it the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in a century. According to AccuWeather, there could be $8 to $10 billion in losses. While it’s still not certain what started the fires, nearly one-fifth of Maui was in drought conditions. Hundreds of miles to the southwest, Hurricane Dora produced winds that fanned the flames. Dry vegetation, about one-quarter of which is from non-native grasses, was easily ignited. Last winter, there was more rainfall than the average, which could have led to the growth of grasses and other vegetation that then became highly flammable as they lost moisture.

After the wildfires are gone, communities in Maui, just like those in Boulder County, Colorado, and Paradise, California, will face environmental hazards.  Writing in The Conversation, Andrew Whelton of Purdue University says that burned structures contain plastics, paint, and treated wood that release toxic gases and particles, many of which fall to the ground. When stirred up, hazardous chemicals like benzene, lead, and asbestos can contaminate air and water. Not even boiling the water can remove the pollutants.

To add to the planet’s climate woes, a new study published last week concludes that extreme events are hitting the fragile environments of Antarctica, stressing them considerably. Researchers from the University of Exeter said that the polar continent could lose its cooling effect on Earth and start “acting as a radiator.”

The Antarctic study was published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science.

An Ecological Time Bomb Has Been Defused in the Red Sea

The world is celebrating that a major ecological disaster in the Red Sea, which threatened one of Earth’s largest marine ecosystems, has been averted. A decaying oil super tanker floating off the coast of Yemen had become a ticking time bomb, creating fears that it could rupture or explode. However, oil from the FSO Safer was successfully removed last week. The ship had been abandoned about eight years ago loaded with one million barrels of oil—four times more than the Exxon Valdez carried when it spilled off the coast of Alaska in 1989.

FSO Safer is a floating oil storage and offloading vessel that is moored in the Red Sea north of the Yemeni city of Al Hudaydah.  |  Credit: Holm Akhdar

The successful removal was carried out by the UN, whose officials had been warning for years that the ship put the entire Red Sea coastline at risk. After a crowdfunding effort, the oil was siphoned to another vessel beginning at the end of July.

Warring factions in Yemen had blamed each other for not allowing the salvage operation to proceed. If the ship had ruptured or exploded, it would have closed ports in Yemen, worsening conditions for 17 million people suffering from the civil war. It would have also affected 200,000 jobs and depleted fish stocks for up to 25 years.  A study by Stanford University determined that a spill could have increased cardiovascular and respiratory disease and psychiatric and neurological problems especially in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Eritrea.

A spill would have threatened corals and mangroves. According to researchers, the Red Sea’s ecosystem includes one of the longest continuously living reefs in the world which are remarkable for their ability to tolerate heat.

Translating Climate Change Terms into Sign Language

As our planet changes, so also changes the vocabulary needed to describe it.  Our lexicon includes words we might not have often uttered ten years ago—phrases like greenhouse gases, carbon footprint, or anthropogenic. Now try to imagine employing those words if you are a deaf student, teacher, or scientist using sign language. It could get quite cumbersome spelling out each character if a sign doesn’t exist.

Each of the new 200 signs that have been added to British Sign Languge have a video and  definition. More signs will launch later in 2023.  |  Credit: The Royal Society

Luckily, help has arrived for those who use British Sign Language or BSL. Recently, it was updated with over 200 environmental science terms which now have their own official signs. So, instead of finger spelling A-C-I-D-I-F-I-C-A-T-I-O-N, a person would hold up their left index finger while the right hand palm held vertically, moves behind it to the side.

The glossary of new terms, which are arranged around ecosystems, biodiversity, the physical environment, and pollution, was created by the Scottish Sensory Centre together with the Royal Society, and will make it possible for deaf people to fully engage and contribute to discussions about life on Earth.

You can watch the videos on the Scottish Sensory Centre website.

Why Companies Are Studying the Elimination of Contrails

Contrails—short for condensation trails—are the wispy, white lines you see left behind planes as they travel across the sky. Contrails are not “chemtrails”— governments spraying us with substances for mind control—as conspiracy theorists would have you believe. However, those folks are right that contrails can be bad. They can trap heat in the atmosphere and add to the climate crisis. The 2022 IPCC report noted that contrails account for 35 percent of aviation's global warming impact.

Credit: Google

Contrails form when water vapor in the air mixes with exhaust particles like soot and other pollutants that are emitted from aircraft engines. The manufactured clouds can last for minutes or hours, and although they can reflect sunlight back into space during the day, they also trap large amounts of heat that would otherwise leave Earth’s atmosphere.

Not every flight causes contrails—they only occur when planes fly through layers of humidity—so how to avoid those areas was a challenge taken up by a group of researchers at Google (Project Contrails) who teamed up with Bill Gates’ climate investment fund, Breakthrough Energy, to combine satellite imagery with weather and flight path data and then used AI to develop contrail forecast maps.

Next, they partnered with American Airlines whose pilots flew 70 test flights over six months using the maps to make small adjustments to routes—not dissimilar to how they might change course or altitude to avoid turbulence—and found that contrail formation was reduced by 54 percent.

Although the adjusted routes burned two percent more fuel, the team calculated that because only a fraction of flights would need to be changed, using the maps could be a net positive for the environment. All parties say additional research is needed to scale up the idea, but it could begin to reduce aviation’s climate impact as sustainable fuels and other technology take flight.