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The innocuous white vapour trails that criss-cross the sky may not be as harmless as they look. In fact, they might have contributed to more global warming so far than all aircraft greenhouse gas emissions put together.

High-altitude clouds like cirrus warm the planet by trapping heat. Contrail "cirrus" does the same thing, but the question is: how much? We know that contrails trap some extra energy in the atmosphere: their radiative forcing trapped 10 milliwatts per square metre (mW/m2) in 2005, according to an estimate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That compares with 28 mW/m2 trapped by all of the CO2 released by aircraft engines since the start of aviation.

However, the IPCC estimate only took into account relatively fresh, visible vapour trails that exist for just a few hours. Afterwards they spread out and become indistinguishable from normal cirrus. In this form they may trap energy in the atmosphere for many more hours.

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Category: Science