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According to the chemtrail conspiracy theory, long-lasting trails left in the sky by high-flying aircraft are chemical or biological agents deliberately sprayed for sinister purposes undisclosed to the general public. Believers in the theory argue that normal contrails dissipate relatively quickly, and contrails that do not dissipate must contain additional substances, but their arguments have been dismissed by the scientific community: such trails are simply normal water-based contrails (condensation trails) which are routinely left by high-flying aircraft under certain atmospheric conditions. Although proponents have attempted to prove that the claimed chemical spraying does take place, their analyses have been flawed or based on misconception.
Because of the widespread popularity of the conspiracy theory, official agencies have received many inquiries from people demanding an explanation. Scientists and government officials around the world have repeatedly needed to confirm that supposed chemtrails are in fact normal contrails.
The term chemtrail is a portmanteau of the words "chemical" and "trail", just as contrail is a contraction of "condensation trail". Believers in the conspiracy theory speculate that the purpose of the claimed chemical release may be for solar radiation management, psychological manipulation, human population control, weather modification, or biological or chemical warfare, and that the trails are causing respiratory illnesses and other health problems. Contrails are formed at high altitudes (5–10 miles or 8–16 kilometres) and if any chemicals were released at such altitude they would disperse harmlessly and fall many hundreds of miles away, or degrade before touching the ground.
In 1996, a chemtrail conspiracy theory began to circulate when the United States Air Force (USAF) was accused of "spraying the U.S. population with mysterious substances" from aircraft "generating unusual contrail patterns." The USAF says these accusations were a hoax fueled in part by citations to a strategy paper drafted within their Air University entitled Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025. The paper was presented in response to a military directive to outline a future strategic weather modification system for the purpose of maintaining the United States' military dominance in the year 2025, and identified as "fictional representations of future situations/scenarios." The USAF further clarified that the paper "does not reflect current military policy, practice, or capability," and that it is "not conducting any weather modification experiments or programs and has no plans to do so in the future." Additionally, the USAF states that the "'Chemtrail' hoax has been investigated and refuted by many established and accredited universities, scientific organizations, and major media publications." The conspiracy theory is seldom covered by the mainstream media, and when it is, it is usually cast as an example of anti-government paranoia.
An article in the Skeptical Inquirer said that the conspiracy theory was first started in the 1990s by "investigative journalists" like William Thomas, and then promoted in the late-night radio shows of Art Bell. The proponents claim that after 1995 contrails had a different chemical composition and lasted a lot longer on the sky; they never acknowledge the photographs of long-lasting contrails dating as far back as World War II.
In the United Kingdom, when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was asked "what research her Department has undertaken into the polluting effects of chemtrails for aircraft," the response was that "the Department is not researching into chemtrails from aircraft as they are not scientifically recognised phenomena," and that work was being conducted to understand "how contrails are formed and what effects they have on the atmosphere."
In a response to a petition by concerned Canadian citizens regarding "chemicals used in aerial sprayings are adversely affecting the health of Canadians," the Government House Leader responded by stating, "There is no substantiated evidence, scientific or otherwise, to support the allegation that there is high altitude spraying conducted in Canadian airspace. The term 'chemtrails' is a popularised expression, and there is no scientific evidence to support their existence." The house leader goes on to say that "it is our belief that the petitioners are seeing regular airplane condensation trails, or contrails."
Official statements on the non-existence of chemtrails have not discouraged the conspiracy theorists. Various versions of the chemtrail conspiracy theory have propagated via the internet and radio programs. There are web sites dedicated to the conspiracy theory, and it is particularly favored by right-wing groups since it fits well with deep suspicion of government. In some of the accounts, the chemicals are described as barium and aluminum salts, polymer fibers, thorium, or silicon carbide. Other accounts allege that the skies are being seeded with electrically conductive materials as part of a massive electromagnetic superweapons program based around the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP). Those who believe in the conspiracy say the chemtrails are toxic, but the reasons given by those who believe in the conspiracy vary widely, ranging from military weapons testing to chemical population control to climate control. Scientists and federal agencies have consistently denied that chemtrails exist, insisting the sky tracks are simply persistent contrails. As the chemtrail conspiracy theory spread, federal officials were flooded with angry calls and letters. A multi-agency response to dispel the rumors was published in a 2000 fact sheet by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a step many chemtrail believers have interpreted as further evidence of the existence of a government cover-up.
Proponents of the chemtrail conspiracy theory say that chemtrails can be distinguished from contrails by their long duration, asserting that the chemtrails are those trails left by aircraft that persist for as much as a half day or transform into cirrus-like clouds.
In 2001, US Congressman Dennis Kucinich introduced H.R. 2977 (107th) Space Preservation Act of 2001 that would have permanently prohibited the basing of weapons in space, listing chemtrails as one of a number of "exotic weapons" that would be banned." Proponents have interpreted this explicit reference to chemtrails as official government acknowledgment of their existence. Skeptics note that the bill in question also mentions "extraterrestrial weapons" and "environmental, climate, or tectonic weapons." The bill received an unfavorable evaluation from the United States Department of Defense and died in committee, with no mention of chemtrails appearing in the text of any of the three subsequent failed attempts by Kucinich to enact a Space Preservation Act.
Contrails, or condensation trails, are "streaks of condensed water vapor created in the air by an airplane or rocket at high altitudes." The term chemtrail is a portmanteau of the words "chemical" and "trail," just as contrail is a contraction of "condensation trail." These condensation trails are the result of normal emissions of water vapor from piston engines and jet engines at high altitudes in which the water vapor condenses into a visible cloud. Contrails are formed when hot humid air from the engines mixes with the colder surrounding air. The rate at which contrails dissipate is entirely dependent on weather conditions and altitude. If the atmosphere is near saturation, the contrail may exist for some time. Conversely, if the atmosphere is dry, the contrail will dissipate quickly.
It is well established by atmospheric scientists that contrails can not only persist for hours, but it is a perfectly normal characteristic for them to spread out into cirrus sheets. The different sized ice crystals in contrails descend at different rates, which spreads the contrail vertically. Then the differential in wind speeds between altitudes (wind shear) results in the spreading of the contrail across many miles in the sky. This mechanism is similar to the formation of cirrus uncinus clouds. Contrails between 25,000 and 40,000 feet can often merge into an "almost solid" interlaced sheet. Contrails can have a lateral spread of several kilometers, and given sufficient air traffic it is possible for contrails to create an entirely overcast sky which increases the ice budget of individual contrails and persists for hours.
Experts on atmospheric phenomena say chemtrails do not exist, and that the characteristics attributed to them are simply features of contrails responding differently in diverse conditions in terms of the sunlight, temperature, horizontal and vertical wind shear, and humidity levels present at the aircraft's altitude. In the US, the gridlike nature of the National Airspace System's flight lanes tends to cause crosshatched contrails, and in general it is hard to discern from the ground whether overlapping contrails are at similar altitudes or not. The jointly published fact sheet produced by NASA, the EPA, the FAA, and NOAA in 2000 in response to alarms over chemtrails details the science of contrail formation, and outlines both the known and potential impacts contrails have on temperature and climate. The USAF produced a fact sheet as well that described these contrail phenomena as observed and analyzed since at least 1953. It also rebutted chemtrail theories more directly by identifying the theories as a hoax and denying the existence of chemtrails.
Patrick Minnis, an atmospheric scientist with NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, is quoted in USA Today as saying that logic does not dissuade most chemtrail proponents: "If you try to pin these people down and refute things, it's, 'Well, you're just part of the conspiracy'," he said.
Proponents of the theory of the existence of chemtrails characterize these phenomena as streams that persist for hours and that, with their criss-cross, grid-like or parallel stripe patterns, eventually blend to form large clouds. Proponents view the presence of visible color spectra in the streams, unusual concentrations of sky tracks in a single area, or lingering tracks left by unmarked or military airplanes flying at atypical altitudes or locations as markers of chemtrails.
Astronomer Bob Berman has characterized the chemtrail conspiracy theory as a classic example of failure to apply Occam's razor, since instead of adopting the long-established "simple solution" that the trails consist of frozen water vapour, "the conspiracy web sites think the phenomenon started only a decade ago and involves an evil scheme in which 40,000 commercial pilots and air traffic controllers are in on the plot to poison their own children".
Photographs of barrels installed in the passenger space of an aircraft for flight test purposes have been claimed to show aerosol dispersion systems. The real purpose of the barrels is to simulate the weight of passengers or cargo. The barrels are filled with water, and the water can be pumped from barrel to barrel in order to test different centers of gravity while the aircraft is in flight.
Jim Marrs has cited a 2007 Louisiana television station report as evidence for chemtrails. In the report the air underneath a crosshatch of supposed chemtrails was measured and apparently found to contain unsafe levels of barium: at 6.8 parts per million, three times the US nationally recommended limit. A subsequent analysis of the footage showed, however, that the equipment had been misused, and the reading exaggerated by a factor of 100—the true level of barium measured was both usual and safe.
In May 2014 a video went viral, showing a commercial passenger airplane landing on a foggy night, which was described as emitting chemtrails. Discovery News pointed out that passengers sitting behind the wings would clearly see anything being sprayed, which would defeat any intent to be secretive, and that the purported chemical emission was normal air disruption caused by the wings, visible due to the fog.
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