Pack up your tinfoil hats and sit down, conspiracy buffs everywhere, because I have some bad news — chemtrails aren’t a thing. The conspiracy theory, according to which shady organizations or even governments use aircraft to seed all sorts of chemicals into the air we breathe, just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, finds the first peer-reviewed study on the subject.

Image via wikimedia

Ah, chemtrails. These glorious, elegant, white trails that airplanes leave in their wake have long been, without any form of proof, believed to be the government’s way of…I don’t know really. Controlling the weather? Controlling our minds? Something nefarious, anyway. Still, the conspiracy theory is going strong, unabated by the total lack of evidence. A 2011 international survey showed that nearly 17 percent of respondents believed in secret, large-scale spraying programs. Humans are very good at finding explanations to fit their beliefs, and everything from how long a trail lasts in the sky, differences in color or shape have been cited as proof that The Government is pumping chemicals into the air, man!

The sad thing is that there actually is an explanation for why these trails form. They’re called contrails, short for condensation trails, and it’s been shown that they form as water vapor condenses around aerosols in aircraft exhaust. The scientific community has been reluctant to engage the issue head on, however, as they do with nearly every piece of pseudoscience or conspiracy theory out there.

Why? I don’t know. Maybe researchers feel that there are better issues to spend their time on, or that their reputation will suffer if they discuss one of these subjects. Maybe they just think that no amount of evidence is going to dissuade some people.

Whatever the cause, ignoring these issues isn’t in anyone’s best interest. Luckily, a team stepped up and published the first peer-reviewed journal article regarding chemtrails. They report not finding any evidence of covert large-scale chemical spraying programs going on, and concluded that distinctive ‘chemtrail’ patterns in the sky can all be explained by the regular science of water vapor.

“We wanted to establish a scientific record on the topic of secret atmospheric spraying programs for the benefit of those in the public who haven’t made up their minds,” said lead researcher Steven Davis from the University of California, Irvine.

“The experts we surveyed resoundingly rejected contrail photographs and test results as evidence of a large-scale atmospheric conspiracy.”

The team interviewed 77 scientists, atmospheric chemists who specialize in condensation trails or geochemists working on atmospheric deposition of dust and pollution. Out of this group, 76 said they hadn’t come across evidence of secret, large-scale spraying programs. The 77th said she came across a “high levels of atmospheric barium in a remote area with standard ‘low’ soil barium.”

In other words, a geochemical imbalance that could be caused by chemicals being sprayed into the atmosphere but no evidence of it actually happening.

The researchers were also shown four images that are commonly circulated as chemtrails, and all of them agreed they were all ordinary contrails. They even provided peer-reviewed citations to back up their statement.

“Despite the persistence of erroneous theories about atmospheric chemical spraying programs, until now there were no peer-reviewed academic studies showing that what some people think are ‘chemtrails’ are just ordinary contrails, which are becoming more abundant as air travel expands,” said one of the researchers, Ken Caldeira from the Carnegie Institution for Science.

“Also, it is possible that climate change is causing contrails to persist for longer periods than they used to.”

The researchers also suggested that contrails are more common these days simply because air travel is becoming more regular.

The team says that their research probably won’t convince anyone who already has their mind made up that chemtrails are real, but they hope it will offer people new to the topic some objective information for when they research chemtrails.

“I felt it was important to definitively show what real experts in contrails and aerosols think,” said Caldeira. “We might not convince die-hard believers that their beloved secret spraying program is just a paranoid fantasy, but hopefully their friends will accept the facts.”

The full paper “Quantifying expert consensus against the existence of a secret, large-scale atmospheric spraying program” has been published in Environmental Research Letters.

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