McGill Alert / Alerte de McGill

Updated: Fri, 07/12/2024 - 12:16

McGill Alert. The downtown campus will remain partially closed through the evening of Monday, July 15. See the Campus Safety site for details.

Alerte de McGill. Le campus du centre-ville restera partiellement fermé jusqu’au lundi 15 juillet, en soirée. Complément d’information : Direction de la protection et de la prévention

Subscribe to the OSS Weekly Newsletter!

On the Trail of Chemtrail Nonsense

Despite the lack of evidence, some believe in the existence of some sort of secret program to alter the chemistry of the atmosphere.

This article was first published in The Montreal Gazette.


I remember the day I first became acquainted with the notion of “chemtrails.” It was December 13, 2002, the day before I was to be a guest on Art Bell’s Coast to Coast, a very popular overnight radio show. I had just come out with my book The Genie in the Bottle, some chapters of which the producer told me intrigued Art. “Bending Spoons of Bending Minds,” “A Writer and a Magician Among the Spirits” and “pHooey to pHake Health Claims” were of interest.

“Would you like to come on Coast to Coast to have a discussion with Mr. Bell?”

I didn’t know very much about the program except that it was indeed aired coast to coast and that it dealt with some offbeat topics. I thought I had better look into what it was all about to have an idea of the sorts of questions that might arise. Offbeat turned out to be right. Previous shows had dealt with UFO abductions, ancient astronauts and a host of conspiracy theories ranging from the Kennedy assassination to the “fake” moon landing. I was familiar with these, but there was another subject that had been featured: the matter of chemtrails. This I had not heard of, so down the rabbit hole I went.

I learned that the white “contrails” left by high flying aircraft — that, according to what I had learned in my elementary physics course, were tiny ice crystals formed by the condensation of water vapour from jet engine exhaust — actually have a nefarious side. Some are actually chemtrails, went the argument. Certain chemicals are secretly carried in planes to be spewed out along with the water crystals. Why? Several theories surfaced. The chemicals were designed to control the minds of the masses, or were intended to make people sick to benefit drug companies, or aimed to change the weather, or most disturbingly, were a form of population control. Who was behind all of this? Take your pick: The CIA, the military, Bill Gates, or the “deep sate,” whatever that may be.

The claims are quite extraordinary. And, as we are fond of saying in science, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So, what evidence do the chemtrail proponents offer? Here goes. Prior to about 1995, they say, contrails dissipated very quickly. But from then on, some lasted for many hours, a phenomenon that could only be explained by something other than just ice crystals being released. Wrong. Numerous textbooks on physics and atmospheric science explain in detail how the rate at which contrails dissipate depends on weather conditions. If the air humidity is very high, contrails exist for a long time. If the air is dry, they quickly dissipate or may not even form at all. There is nothing new here. World War II era photographs document long lasting contrails.

What chemicals are supposedly being released? Compounds of barium and aluminum are the ones most frequently mentioned, with claims that testing the soil underneath chemtrails finds higher than normal levels. Barium and aluminum are common elements widely distributed geologically, and the “studies” claiming unusually high levels have been thoroughly debunked. Then there are pictures that show numerous barrels instead of passenger seats in a Boeing 747 aircraft that claim to show an aerosol dispersion system. Nonsense! Such water-filled barrels are used during the testing of airplanes to simulate the weight of passengers or cargo.

Despite the lack of evidence, an international survey in 2016 revealed that about 17 per cent of the population believes claims of the existence of some sort of secret program to alter the chemistry of the atmosphere to be true or partially true. This prompted a group of scientists headed by Steven Davis of the University of California to carry out its own survey among atmospheric chemists with expertise in condensation trails and geochemists working on atmospheric deposition of dust and pollution. In an extensive paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, they describe how 76 of the 77 experts surveyed said they had not encountered any evidence of chemtrails and that the evidence cited on their behalf could be explained through other factors, including well-understood physics and chemistry associated with aircraft contrails and atmospheric aerosols. The single dissenter referred to one experiment that detected high levels of atmospheric barium in a remote area with low soil barium, although there was no connection made to aircraft.

The one claim made by the chemtrail advocates that does have an aura of truth brings us to geoengineering, the science that focuses on possible methods to manipulate the atmosphere to offset the impact of climate change. Global warming is a huge concern, with its impact already being felt in changing weather patterns that signal potentially catastrophic effects. One possibility that has been deemed worthy of exploration is the spraying of some substance into the atmosphere with hopes of reflecting sunlight. A number of scientists are exploring this possibility in the laboratory, but no outdoor experiments have been carried out.

One of the leading researchers in the field, University of Chicago physicist David Keith, has proposed calcium carbonate — essentially, chalk dust — as a candidate and planned to carry out an experiment in which a high altitude balloon would be launched over northern Sweden to monitor the release of a small amount (2 kg) of calcium carbonate. The aim was to investigate the dispersal of the chemical. The project never materialized due to opposition by environmental groups.

What did materialize was ugly, often antisemitic hate mail to Keith from chemtrail believers who opined that he should die for his sins. There were also threats of physical violence that necessitated calls to the police. What sins had Keith committed? He had studied possible ways to counter climate change. Such threats of course are not only directed at climate change researchers. Dr. Anthony Fauci has been subjected to horrific warnings of harm for his stance on vaccinations and supposed faulty advice about handling COVID-19.

As we know, politicians are also prone to strange beliefs. Steve Southerland, a republican in the state of Tennessee, sponsored a bill that, while not mentioning chemtrails, speaks of the government “intentionally dispersing chemicals into the atmosphere” and proposes to ban their “intentional injection, release, or dispersion, by any means.” A right wing Pennsylvania state senator also has plans to introduce a similar bill. Doug Mastriano has posted photos of contrails with the caption “I have legislation to stop this.”

What actually needs to be stopped is the perverse hijacking of physics and chemistry to make unsubstantiated claims about the public being harmed by nonexistent chemtrails, and the threats to scientists who are carrying out research that aims to benefit the public.

As far as my appearance on Coast to Coast went, there was no talk of conspiracy theories and Art Bell was respectful. He readily accepted my opinion that spoons cannot be bent by the power of the mind, and perhaps, with somewhat more reservation, that there is no evidence for the existence of spirits.

Had he asked about chemtrails, I was ready with my “no evidence” argument.


@JoeSchwarcz

Back to top