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“Chemtrails”? Really? Did you flunk science?

by Donald Prothero, Aug 06 2014

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!”

As Kyle Hill describes it:

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.

As RationalWiki describes it:

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.”

34 Responses to ““Chemtrails”? Really? Did you flunk science?”

  1. Peter Damian says:

    Ah, but they don’t need tons of chemicals, because they’re homeopathic chemtrails. Duh!
    Also, it’s been scientifically proven that today’s clouds contain the same chemical used in the mixing of cement and also by some agencies for a particular torture method.

    • Mike E. says:

      That was absolutely one of the funniest things I’ve read in weeks.
      Thank-you for the good laugh.

  2. Trimegistus says:

    Chemtrail paranoiacs were around back in the 1990s. Interestingly, even during the Clinton administration, the chemtrail enthusiasts seemed to be mostly leftists (unlike the “black helicopters” crowd who were on the right). I guess that’s why a Democrat senator like Kucinich took up the issue.

    By the way, isn’t he one of the Party of Science ™?

    • There you go again, Trimegistus. I gave you a COMPLETELY NON-POLITICAL post with no mention of any parties, and you go ahead and politicize it. Is that the way you treat everything we post?

      • Timothy R Campbell says:

        Well, to be fair, you DID make a slightly snarky comment in mentioning Dennis the Menace! Of course, while the Democratic Party in general is more pro-science than the current faith-driven GOP, there is still a variance in attitude and scientific literacy among that party as well! Dennis is an example of how far that variance can extend! lol

      • Trimegistus says:

        I suppose quoting Shermer’s jab at the Bush administration is utterly non-political? Apparently you can’t even tell when you’re doing it any more.

      • Tobias says:

        What’s this, trouble in paradise?

  3. BillG says:

    I miss the “good ole days” when bunk and conspiracies were limited to bigfoot, nessie and JFK. I would mention Roswell but I believe that took 30-years before the yahoos’ adopted that one.

  4. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    There’s an additional point to consider. To illustrate, I took a comp sci course with an instructor who had worked on the threat detection software for the F-14. Data storage back then not as as compact as today, there was a dispute over how many lines of code she could be allotted; every ounce added to the basic aircraft carries a penalty in fuel consumption. Airline profit margins are razor thin. I can’t imagine any airline agreeing to carry extra hundreds or thousands of pounds of hazardous materials and sprayers on its planes without serious compensation being paid. I also don’t think tax breaks would do it either; fuel used today has to be replaced in the here and now, at whatever today’s price is. The average accountant is not an idiot and some of them at least would notice such irregular payments.

    • tmac57 says:

      But Dave! Can’t you see? That’s what all these damned baggage and extra fees are all about.Deep cover my friend…so deep…

    • DRizdek says:

      Yes, unfortunately your point works both ways. The conspiracy theorists would claim the gu’mint IS paying commercial airline companies gobs of money TO carry chemicals to dump on the masses. And they, being “in on it” make more money, no less. As tmac says, it’s deep, so deep.

  5. Chris Irwin says:

    Chemtrail theorists are right up there with 9-11 truthers, climate denialists, and anyone else that tries to use science and government to form a conspiracy. I have poked holes in these arguments over and over with the basic knowledge I have regarding weather and climate patterns. They just tell me I am brainwashed by the “system.” I point out the holes in how government conspiracies just couldn’t work on that level, kinda what you mentioned about how too many people, too much chance of it getting out. They just say that everyone in the government is lockstep with “current administrations.” There is no arguing with these folks. Ever. If you disagree, you are either part of the conspiracy, or are sheeple. If you provide evidence, they discount it as false because it comes from official sources. One guy even told me that he doesn’t believe anything that’s either not in the Bible or told to him by Alex Jones. I keep saying I give up, but I still get sucked in.

  6. A Sceptic says:

    Brian Dunning needs to make a statement.

    • This is my blogpost, not his. I don’t control his actions.

      • Max says:

        I’m not surprised that his “setting the record straight” page libels a Business Insider reporter.

        He takes the reporter to task for reporting: According to the FBI’s account of its interrogation of Dunning, he and [XXXXX] — while playing “World of Warcraft” — had discussed “techniques for masking activity that could be labeled as being outside the Affiliate Program’s terms of service.”
        He says never played World of Warcraft, and “How this reporter came up with this is a complete mystery to me.”

        But the FBI’s account states, “Dunning traveled to Hogan’s residence in San Diego and the two men spent the day playing War Craft and discussing techniques for masking activity that could be labeled as being outside the Affiliate Program’s terms of service.”

        Brian goes on to explain that the FBI got everything wrong. But that’s not the reporter’s fault.

  7. John D. Sutton says:

    I always find it funny on people who think the government is “poisoning” us with fluoride in the water. Yet, we are still growing as a population worldwide. How is this affective? Surely if this is happening, we would see drastic results in the population.

    • Mark Scurry says:

      Yep that’s yet another blow to the conspiracy mindset. The government is apparently secretly poisoning us, or making us docile, or whatever (maybe programmed to watch reality TV), but it doesn’t seem to be working. There are more people than ever, living longer than ever, living in better conditions than ever (in the Western world at least), smarter than ever, and less violent than ever.

  8. kraut says:
    “Influence of weather conditions on the
    distribution of persistent contrails”
    effects of contrails on surface weather

    Maybe the last two had something to do with the myth?

    just a bit more info.

  9. Andrea Monticue says:

    I am an aviation maintenance professional, and my default response to anybody who brings up the subject of chemtrails is, “If they existed, I’d’ve seen the Supplemental Type Certificates for the storage and dispersal systems. How’s your wife these days?” I have yet to meet a chemtrail conspiracy advocate who knew what an STC is.

    Good article, but to little avails, I think. People have been debunking chemtrails for 20 years, and it hasn’t stemmed the tide.

  10. Mick West says:

    You know, a lot of people actually DID fail high school science.

    Mocking people’s lack of understanding of science is not helpful. It just polarises people against you. Which is a shame, as your article is largely a very good overview of the topic.

  11. Juliet Fischer says:

    Edward Snowden HAS been invoked on chemtrails.

    Shortly after he absconded to Russia, someone posted to Facebook a piece in which Snowden supposedly revealed the chemtrail conspiracy. Because someone involved in the NSA’s widespread eavesdropping and computer snooping would know about chemicals being dropped on citizens. (Yes, being sarcastic.)

  12. Acitta says:

    I think I get it. The government is secretly dousing us with chemicals that cause us to believe in bizarre conspiracy theories!

  13. Pete A says:

    “But there’s an even bigger factor at work here: gross science illiteracy.”

    Although this statement is true, it masks the underlying factors at work here. From age 6/7 I was taught basic problem solving skills, which requires obtaining answers to the questions: who, what, when, where, why, how? One doesn’t need to be literate in science, mathematics (especially statistics), and advanced logic in order to acquire rudimentary critical thinking skills — one simply needs to gain a bounded-by-reason sense of curiosity about our world and our universe; a desire to learn rather than a desire to appear to be knowledgeable; adopting humility (self-doubt) rather than arrogance (dogma).

    When we ask questions along the lines “What do people gain from believing the palpably not true?” we gain far greater insight into the problem, and its possible solutions, than we could ever gain by ascribing the main factor to just gross science illiteracy. There are many benefits to joining a group of people who believe that they possess “special knowledge” e.g. elitism: the superior attitude or behaviour associated with an elite.

    Let’s face it, in this 21st Century it’s very much easier to join an elitist group than it is to learn basic science, statistics, and critical thinking skills. Furthermore, the top search results from Web search engines list by popularity, not by factual accuracy!

  14. Karen says:

    I think Pete A. is on to something. The science almost doesn’t matter. It’s just too emotionally satisfying to be part of a conspiracy theory. It helps deal with the overwhelming complexity that the world presents to some people. I see it in an extended family member, who has suffered more than his share in life. Believing in conspiracies gives him a sense of being in control.

    I suspect (but don’t know) that once you’ve acquired the habit of thinking critically, it might be quite difficult to engage in conspiracy thinking. As a society, our best defense against this garbage is to teach our young people critical thinking. But there will be a lot of opposition.

  15. Rob says:

    I realize that MOST of the other replies are tongue in cheek, but I thought my 4.3 cents (2 cents, adjusted for inflation) needed to be entered here.
    I am retired from the air force, I worked many years working on aircraft as well as flying in them. Many times contrails form from the vortexes on the wingtips. There is NO system for pumping liquids to the wingtips on most of the aircraft I worked on (why would there be) yet on one long distance flight, the conditions were right that we were leaving contrails. and I watched them form, not from the engines but from the wingtips. they were quite pretty to look at. I even took some pictures of them. but they are ONLY a result of the violently disturbed air off the tips of the wings. there is NO chemicals in the aircraft or fuel being put in the air. Contrails were seen in WW2 high altitude bomber formations too. no chemicals then either.

  16. Joseph M. says:

    I know a couple “chemtrails” conspiracy nuts. One of the also believes The U.S. never landed a man on the moon, and is a 9/11 “truther.” The other person I have known many years and she has always had some beliefs in astrology. I don’t have a problem with people following astrology or Feng Shui because it’s as harmless as a Fortune Cookie. But then she told me about “chemtrails” and I realized, at once, she wasn’t that bright. Michael Shermer points out that people who believe in one conspiracy theory typically believe in others.

    Another problem today is that “experts” are getting way with doing television interviews and publishing books while lying about their credentials. Take “Dr. Robert Duncan” for example. He appeared on the Jesse Venture program and published a book titled “Project: Soul Catcher: Secrets of Cyber and Cybernetic Warfare Revealed.” He claims to have a doctorate and to have worked for the CIA, FBI and DARPA. He also claims he earned advanced degrees at studied at Harvard and Dartmouth. With those credentials you’d have to wonder we he filed personal bankruptcy in Boise, Idaho in 2010 with less than $3,000 in assets? It’s because he has fabricated all of the qualifications and people don’t bother to vet his claims.

  17. mary mitchell says:

    What you fail to understand is that conspiracy theorists don’t want logical or scientific answers, they are content with the notion that they will be turned into zombies any minute. Or more precisely that the rest of us will be turned into zombies. They will be safe with the tin foil hat and the well armed bunker. There is no way to reason with them. You can use math, science or logic. It’s really not so much fun to play with them anyway, they are so paranoid and driven. They use energy that could be used for good and work tirelessly to save themselves and possible recruit others. Their theories also have a certain elegance and probably a proven fact or two mixed in. Keep up the good fight but the enemy has got plenty of energy if not brains.