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Climate change and the future of air travel

The investigation focuses on how aircraft can avoid creating vapour trails, also known as contrails. These spindly threads of condensation may not seem important but some persist for hours and behave in the same way as high altitude cirrus clouds, trapping warmth in the atmosphere and exacerbating global warming.

Air travel is currently growing at between 3 and 5% per year and cargo transportation by air is increasing by 7% per year. The researchers at Imperial College London are combining predictions from climate change models with air traffic simulations to predict contrail formation and identify ways of reducing it.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is funding the work, which is a joint effort between the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering and the Department of Physics at Imperial College London.

As the climate changes, so will the general condition of the atmosphere and the new work aims to understand how this will affect contrail formation. They have already found that aircraft could generally minimise contrail formation by flying lower in the atmosphere. Their work suggests that in the summer, when the air is warmer, restricting jets to an altitude of 31,000 feet could be beneficial. In winter, when the air cools, and contrail formation becomes more likely, the ceiling should be no more then 24,000 feet.

Day to day variability in atmospheric conditions were also found to have a substantial effect on the ability of simple altitude restrictions to be an effective policy. Current work is aiming to examine more complex aircraft routing strategies aimed at avoiding air masses that lead to persistent contrail formation.

At present the production of contrails and their effect on the environment is not taken into account in government assessments of the environmental impact of air travel. Team leader, Dr Robert Noland, thinks it should be. He says, "We'd like this research to in
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Contact: Natasha Richardson
44-1-794-444-404
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
25-Jan-2005


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