Since the Wright Brothers first took flight, aviation has been what many consider a modern marvel. How do planes work? What keeps them in the sky? What are those long, white clouds a plane leaves behind?
That last question has caught the attention of conspiracy theorists over the last few decades. Scientists and aviation experts say those are contrails: clouds of water vapors that are emitted from a plane’s jet engine.
Others believe in a much more sinister theory – the clouds are actually chemicals being distributed from the airplane, or “chemtrails,” short for chemical trails. Believers say the planes are actually being used to drop chemical or biological agents on unknowing populations. And that it is a top secret plot led by government officials or nefarious global elitists and billionaires with the goal of manipulating whole societies.
Those conspiratorial claims have existed online since the early stages of the internet and have continued to circulate decades later.
On TikTok, videos posted with the hashtag #chemtrails have racked up more than 143 million views. Videos like this and this have been posted on Twitter as recently as March 2023, with some asking if chemtrails are real. A VERIFY viewer texted us and viewer Monica emailed asking if chemtrails are real.
VERIFY looked into what’s actually happening behind those planes, and examined the rise of this pervasive conspiracy theory.
Are chemtrails real?
- American Chemical Society
- University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR)
- Federal Aviation Administration
- Environmental Protection Agency
- 1996 report from the U.S. Air Force on militarizing weather modification
- A 2020 report published by the Missouri Law Review
- Joint study from the University of California Irvine and the Carnegie Institute for Science
- David Keith’s Research Group at Harvard University
No, chemtrails are not real. What you see in the sky are contrails. Chemtrails is a conspiracy theory.
WHAT WE FOUND
Contrails, or condensation trails, are what you are actually seeing in the sky behind the jet engines of planes.
When an aircraft is in the air, the jet engine emits water vapor and also very low amounts of particles – carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, sulfur gasses and soot or metal particles. But it’s only the water vapors that you see in the sky because the other particles burn off during flight.
According to the American Chemical Society, contrails form when the hot, humid air of an exhaust engine meets with cold water vapor in the sky. The water vapors turn into ice particles once they hit the air, making the contrail visible from the ground.
The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) says there are three types of contrails and the amount of moisture in the atmosphere can determine what type forms. UCAR is a US nonprofit consortium of more than 100 colleges and universities providing research and training in the atmospheric and related sciences.
Here are the three types of contrails described by UCAR:
A short-lived contrail forms immediately behind an airplane as a bright white line that lasts for only a short while. These are those straight, thin clouds you see behind a plane. These occur when the air is somewhat moist.
A persistent non-spreading contrail will stay in the sky long after the airplane has flown out of sight. It can last for a few minutes or longer than a day, and it keeps the shape of a thin line. These contrails occur when the air is very moist.
A persistent spreading contrail also occurs when the air is very moist but these grow wider and fuzzier as time passes. These typically can look like a natural cirrus cloud.
The Federal Aviation Administration says contrails pose no threat to people and they evaporate before reaching the Earth’s surface. Further, jet emissions are closely monitored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA says the agency is “not aware of any deliberate actions to release chemical or biological agents into the atmosphere.”
Chemtrails conspiracy theory origins
Several reports tie the start of the chemtrails conspiracy theory to a 1996 report from the U.S. Air Force titled: “Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025.”
This official report provided a strategy for U.S. military air forces to use weather to their strategic advantage. Using weather to assist in military operations could be used in war-fighting operations by the year 2025, the report suggested.
One example of a theoretical strategy outlined in the report suggested that adding carbon to the atmosphere would increase reflection and help camouflage aircraft. A plane’s afterburner jet engines could disperse high amounts of carbon while flying through the air, the report said. The sun would reflect off the carbon particles, causing a blinding effect and provide a camouflage effect that shields the plane. That, combined with stealth technologies, could make an aircraft invisible to radar.
This research paper is one of the first official documents penned by a military branch that addresses a possible need for planes to be equipped with the capability to disperse something from a jet engine with the purpose of manipulating an enemy. That’s why it’s believed this research paper is the spark that ignited the conspiracy.
It’s been 27 years since that paper was published and people around the world still believe in or acknowledge the existence of chemtrails. Some conspiracy theories only exist among a certain demographic or in a certain region – but the chemtrails conspiracy knows no bounds. It’s a global phenomenon and anyone can believe it.
For instance, in 2015, influencer Kylie Jenner posted a meme photo of contrails that showed text of various questions leaning into the chemtrails conspiracy theory, such as: “Is something being exterminated here?”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in Indonesia and elsewhere, the chemtrails conspiracy theory was shared along with false claims the coronavirus was being spread from planes. Those claims are also baseless.
The conspiracy theory has also been shared along with false claims that chemicals are allegedly being dropped from planes for other purposes, like mind control and population control.
A 2020 report published by the Missouri Law Review called the chemtrails conspiracy theory misinformation, but it’s not disinformation because people sharing it aren’t doing so with the intent to deceive.
Both misinformation and disinformation can deceive someone – misinformation can be shared unintentionally, while disinformation is content that is verifiably false and shared deliberately with the intent to deceive.
In the case of chemtrails, people sharing it – actual believers – often don’t think they are doing any harm because they have a “sincerely held belief” chemtrails are real, the report said.
Experts have found no evidence that chemtrails exist
The first-ever peer-reviewed study on chemtrails was conducted by researchers with the University of California Irvine and the Carnegie Institute for Science. The research team determined that conducting an official scientific study on chemtrails was important because the only available information on chemtrails came from government agencies, which led to public confusion and skepticism. The findings were published in 2016.
"We wanted to establish a scientific record on the topic of secret atmospheric spraying programs [chemtrails] for the benefit of those in the public who haven't made up their minds," said Steven Davis of UC Irvine.
To gather data from across the country, researchers with UC Irvine and Carnegie asked two different types of experts to participate in the study: Atmospheric scientists with expertise in condensation trails, and geochemists working on atmospheric deposition of dust and pollution on the Earth’s surface.
Then, they asked those experts to take photos of visible contrails and collect water, soil and snow samples from below the area where contrails were seen. They received results from more than 70 experts, whose data all determined that the visible formations in the sky were not chemtrails.
"The experts we surveyed resoundingly rejected contrail photographs and test results as evidence of a large-scale atmospheric conspiracy,” Davis said.
The David Keith's Research Group at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences likened the chemtrails conspiracy theory to believing aliens walk among humans.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. The claim that there is a large-scale secret program to spray materials from aircraft is extraordinary. Yet all the evidence we have seen to date has been very weak. The most common claim is simply that aircraft contrails look ‘different’, without any comparative analysis. This [is] as convincing as saying that alien beings walk among [us] in disguise as people because some people act very strangely,” the Harvard website said.
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