For the past few years, my Facebook page kept flagging strange websites that claimed that ordinary contrails formed by high-flying aircraft are “chemtrails,” a special kind of chemical sprayed on the unwitting population for reasons too bizarre and illogical to take seriously. For a long time, I’ve ignored this garbage on the internet, but in recent years it has gotten more and more pervasive, and I’ve run into people who believe it. There are whole shows about it on the once-scientific Discovery Channel, and the History Channel as well. Now the chemtrail community circulates their photos and videos among themselves, put hundreds of these videos on YouTube, and on their own sites and forums. But the way the internet works as a giant echo chamber for weird ideas with no peer review, fact checking, or quality control, it’s getting impossible to ignore them any more, and it’s time to debunk it.
The first few times I heard about “chemtrails”, my reaction was “You can’t be serious.” But the people who spread this are serious. They are generally people who have already accepted the conspiracy theory mindset, where everything that they don’t like or don’t understand is immediate proof of some big government conspiracy. But there’s an even bigger factor at work here: gross science illiteracy. The first thing that pops in my mind reading their strange ideas is “Didn’t this person learn any science in school?” And the fastest rebuttal I give when I run into one of these nuts is: “Do you even understand the first thing about our atmosphere? Anything released at 30,000 feet will blow for miles away from where you see it, and has virtually no chance of settling straight down onto the people below, and be so diluted it would have no measurable amount of the chemical by the time it lands. That’s why crop-dusting planes must fly barely 30 feet off the ground so their dust won’t blow too far away from the crops!”
If the chemtrail conspiracy were true, millions of pilots would be needed to crop dust the American population. A typical crop duster might use seven ounces of agent diluted in seven gallons of water to cover one acre of land. Chemtrail “people dusters” would use a similar concentration to cover the entire United States, just to be safe. For 2.38 billion acres of land, the pilots would then need—for just one week of spraying—120 billion gallons of these cryptic chemicals. That’s around the same volume as is transported in all the world’s oil tankers in one year. And such an incredible amount of agent would need an incredible number of planes. Considering that a large air freighter like a Boeing 747 can carry around 250,000 pounds of cargo, at the very least, the government would need to schedule four million 747 flights to spread their chemicals each week—eighteen times more flights per day than in the entire US.
The entire chemtrail conspiracy idea is a relatively recent one, and an idea that would not have become so popular without the ability of the internet to spread lies. As this site shows, it was an ideas that was simmering among conspiracy theorists in the 1990s when one person in particular, William Thomas, made it popular back in 1996. By 1997-1999, he was trying to spread his ideas through interviews and media coverage and early conspiracy internet sites, and gotten many believers to buy in to his bizarre fantasy. Then in 1999, he was featured on Paranormal Central, Art Bell’s show on Coast to Coast radio. If there is any fast way to reach the mob of UFO nuts, paranormal fanatics, and conspiracy theorists besides the internet, Art Bell’s show is the place. Soon the phenomenon exploded far beyond William Thomas or Art Bell, and became a widely accepted idea among the people who tune in to the paranormal or the conspiracy mindset.
So what are “chemtrails”? Allegedly, they are different from normal contrails produced by aircraft, and allegedly they contain some sort of evil chemical that the government conspiracy is trying to poison us with. Normal contrails are something we do understand, because there has been lots of research on them. Many aircraft engines leave a plume of hot gases and vapor from the hydrocarbons in the fuel they burn, and in the subfreezing conditions of the upper troposphere or stratosphere, those hot gases immediately condense to form long vapor clouds behind the plane as it flies. If there are high-altitudes winds or the jet stream is active, they disperse quickly, but often they remain stable for many minutes. Contrails were observed almost as soon as aircraft were able to fly at that elevation, and they are well documented in videos and photos of World War II aircraft, long before any of the current governments that are allegedly conspiring to do this were even in power.
On days when cirrus cloud formation is occurring, there is more moisture in the upper atmosphere, and consequently, contrails may linger longer before evaporating. Since cirrus clouds often precede a general overcast or haze, the casual observer could easily assume that the contrails have caused the overcast, or become the overcast. The persistence of contrails varies with weather conditions: sometimes they dissipate almost immediately, but often they will persist for hours, with crossing trails sometimes forming gridlike patterns that stretch from horizon to horizon. The “chemtrails” label is usually applied to these longer contrails, with their very persistence put forward as “evidence” that they cannot be normal contrails.
Even Indy cars with their speeds exceeding 200 mph produce contrails, another thing which shatters the silly idea that they were first visible in the 1990s in the sky.
Once you delve into their bizarre websites, you get a wide spectrum of different kinds of misconceptions, misinterpretations, and outright falsehoods. The oddest is that people seem to think that contrails are some sort of new phenomenon, when as I just pointed out, we’ve been seeing them in the sky since we were born. People apparently don’t remember seeing contrails when they were young, but that just testifies to the fallibility of human memory, because the photographic record of ordinary contrails goes back to before the 1930s. People don’t remember seeing contrails coming from their jetliner when they fly, but then they can’t look behind the plane in any commercial flight, so they can’t see the contrails—but they are there, just the same.
The next problem is the squishy definition of chemtrails, and how you can tell one from a contrail. Each “definition” gets modified and redefined as soon as the last one is debunked, thus shifting the goalposts. Supposedly, contrails dissipate in minutes, while chemtrails linger for a while. Nope! The time a contrail lingers is dependent on what the upper-level winds are doing, not the chemical composition of the contrail. And as mentioned before there are lots of films of contrails from World War II which lingered for a very long time. Other definitions claim that contrails run parallel to one another, while “chemtrails” form “X” patterns or “grid” patterns. Once again, people forget how busy the skies above us are. In an area with a lot of plane traffic going in many directions, you’ll get every possible pattern of lines crossing one another. On the other hand, if you live in coastal Oregon or central California, most of the flights are north-south, so they tend to be more parallel.
The next claim is that they are spraying barium, or aluminum, or any other number of chemicals supposedly toxic to us. As this site demonstrates, none of these claims are true. More to the point, spraying them from 30,000 feet would be useless, since they would dissipate over a huge area and when they finally landed, they would be diluted into non-detectable, non-toxic amounts—and with the high-level winds, the odds are they’ll blow far away from where they are sprayed in the first place.
Then there are the claims that the Germans admit to doing it! This claim is easily debunked when you realize that the video footage that is used to support this claim deliberately mistranslates the German word Düppel (meaning “chaff”) to mean “chemtrail”. As this site shows, there are numerous video hoaxes about “chemtrails” all over the internet, along with the normal footage of contrails that is misinterpreted. Apparently, hoaxing chemtrails is almost as popular as hoaxing ghosts, UFOs, and Bigfoot. There is also the claim that language about chemtrails got into a bill before Congress. The bill in question, HR2977, had a lot of UFO and chemtrail language originally inserted by a bunch of UFO nuts, and then introduced in 2001 by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who repudiated their unauthorized changes in the bill, and the chemtrail language was dropped. (Bills introducing strange notions to Congress are not unusual for Kucinich).
This list of additional weird claims and debunked hoaxes goes on and on, and are addressed by this website. But ultimately it boils down to the question: why would the government be secretly spraying us for years? How have they pulled it off without one person ever coming forward? Here’s where the fantasies of the conspiracy nut take off, and it’s impossible to ground these ideas in any kind of testable reality. Supposedly, they are poisoning us to make us more docile, or to keep us complaint, or to weaken us; or the chemtrails are a secret program to combat climate change; or even weirder notions. Conspiracy nuts never ask the tough questions: if the government really wanted to poison us, wouldn’t they just put it in the water? It’s actually an effective possibility, as terrorism and security experts well know. Spraying chemicals from 30,000 feet is not effective.
And finally, the larger question: if such a huge conspiracy really existed, and every country in the world, every military and commercial aircraft in the world, and every atmospheric scientist in the world is part of the conspiracy, why has it not leaked by now? Like every other outlandish claim of conspiracy theories, they envision a world where clandestine top-secret organizations are constantly pulling the strings, and not once has anything leaked about them doing it, or anyone who knows of it come forward. This, despite the fact that we get constant revelations of actual secrets from the CIA and NSA and FBI and other organizations all the time, that no chemtrails were exposed in the Wikileaks affair, or any other person has come forward in an age where journalists are constantly digging for secret information. For such a level of secrecy to exist, there would have to be an unprecedented ability for all these organizations to cover up their tracks, when in fact we have tons of evidence to show that every secret organization is only as secretive as its weakest link. And the bigger the conspiracy, the more likely it is to be exposed—yet the chemtrails conspiracy involves the entire planet, and many governments and organizations who are bitter enemies and would love to expose the wrongdoing of their opponents.
Again, from Kyle Hill:
The incognito infrastructure needed to conceal the chemtrail conspiracy would dwarf any other governmental agency. Millions of people—pilots, engineers, chemists, data analysts, and boots-on-the-ground hazmat teams—would need top-secret clearance for information that could never get out. If a chemtrail conspiracy were true, chances are you would run into a few involved in the cover up everyday. An effort to keep millions of mouths silent—to keep any information from pilots or participants out of the media—makes the NSA look like child’s play.
A chemtrail conspiracy comes with collateral damage. Many mechanics that work on crop dusters around the world are routinely, acutely poisoned by the chemicals the pilots seek to spread. If any significant percentage of the legion of mechanics needed to keep the chemtrail fleet flying had the same risk, literally millions of workers would come home poisoned. Spouses and significant others rush them to hospitals across the US, and the cause of this nation-wide plague never raises any eyebrows. No doctors file reports or do studies on the mysterious poisonings, no journalists ever get wind of something awry, and no police officers think a serial contaminator is on the loose. Even though every American would have a consistent chemical profile from any blood test, no one is the wiser. Every single piece of paperwork finds its proper place, deep in a file drawer of some bureaucrat keeping the lid on the chemtrail conspiracy.
In short, the chemtrail conspiracy thinking fails on the same grounds that the 9/11 Truther conspiracy fails: it assumes a level of competence and secret-keeping in a government that has never happened and never will happen. As Michael Shermer quips whenever a 9/11 Truther speaks, “You know how I know it’s not a big government conspiracy that’s been successfully kept secret for many years? Because it happened during the Bush Administration.”