When I was a kid I spent a lot of time on planes flying from country to country and a fair amount of time looking at the sky from the ground, fascinated with the space program which was taking us to the moon and beyond. I never looked to the skies with fear or terror, but only saw it as a blank canvas for amazing possibilities.
One of the things I saw in those skies were lots of straight white lines, sometimes in pairs, usually very high up, which my father identified as contrails. He had been a navy flyer in World War II and had seen plenty of them up close and personal He explained that they are lines of frozen water vapor formed when the hot and humid exhaust from a plane's engines encounters colder air high in the atmosphere and turns to ice crystals, essentially producing artificial clouds behind the plane.
That seemed like a pretty reasonable explanation for many years, but imagine my surprise to be informed that these trails of cloud were not, in fact, mere frozen water vapor, but were actually 'chemtrails'; not trails of condensation, but trails of chemicals nefariously released into our atmosphere by the government or by evil corporations or even by aliens for all sorts of arcane purposes, from testing biological weapons on the civilian population to reprogramming our perceptions with psychoactive chemicals to causing mass sterilization as part of a UN depopulation program.
The basic origin of the chemtrails conspiracy theory seems to be nothing more than people looking up in the sky and seeing contrails and speculating insanely with no actual basis in fact. It's a particularly bewildering theory because we've had a factual, scientific and verifiable explanation for contrails for generations. To look beyond that explanation requires the kind of paranoid mindset that looks at commonplace things and manufactures nightmares out of nothing. It's Agent Mulder announcing "I want to believe" and then finding what he wants to believe in whether it exists or not — the classic self-fulfilling prophecy with nothing real behind it.
The idea that contrails were actually something more nefarious is based on several bits of mistaken evidence. First, that contrails seem to last far longer than anyone would expect and that they are increasing in number. Second, that they sometimes form seemingly complex or regular patterns or display strange colors. Third, that some airplanes have mysterious tanks and apparatus in their wings. Couple these observations with a belief that the government is generally up to no good and you get such popular explanations for 'chemtrails' as that they are methods of dispersing chemicals over the entire surface of the country to drug the population for any purpose from mass inoculation to mind control, that they are some sort of weather modification program to either cause or prevent global warming, and that they are some method of communicating with aliens or terraforming the earth to be more compatible with alien lifeforms.
The behavior of contrails has been pretty thoroughly researched. They are generally found very high in the atmosphere where conditions can be extremely stable and where very low temperatures make it unlikely for ice crystals to melt quickly. Because they are ice crystals at high altitude they can produce a rainbow-like effect which would cause them to change color or appear sparkly when caught by the sun at the right angle. The increasing number of contrails is solely the result of increases in air traffic at higher altitudes in recent years, and there is a direct correlation. Even today you rarely see as many contrails as covered the sky during World War II, as demonstrated by the photo accompanying this article. Regular patterns are easily accounted for by the standardization of flight routes to and from airports which are used over and over again. As for spraying apparatus and tanks found on commercial airliners, these do exist. They are part of the de-icing system on these planes and their function and purpose are easily accounted for.
The idea that these planes are spraying chemicals is probably an extrapolation based on several real activities, including crop dusting experiments with anti-missile chaff and the occasional experimental seeding of clouds to create rain. A crop-dusting style distribution of chemicals would make no sense from an altitude of 20,000 to 30,000 feet because at that altitude any but the most dangerous biotoxins would be dispersed to the point where they would have virtually no effect, plus from that altitude variations in winds as the particles descend would make it impossible to predict or control where any particles would land. What's more, carrying out a widespread program like this to disperse dangerous chemicals through hundreds of commercial airliners would involve so many people and so much suspicious activity that it would be almost impossible to keep it secret. Finally, if the purpose was to drug the general population, then the people behind the program would also be drugging themselves and their families either directly or through food sources which would be contaminated with any widely distributed substance pervasive enough to survive high-atmospheric dispersal. As for the claims of effects from chemtrails, there is no statistical evidence of higher rates of sterility or illness of any kind associated with areas of high activity. So this theory fails the test of logic on almost every count.
Other claims are equally easy to disprove. Claims of jets releasing heavier materials are easily accounted for by releases of 'blue ice' waste material or fuel dumping, and can usually be specifically identified from airline records. Claims of dreaded criss-coss or other heavy patterns or trails which appear only on certain days are generally directly connected to the activities of flights from aiforce bases, which do fly in patterns on specific days and cross over their own trails. Every paranoid claim about these trails can easily be addressed by a simpler and more logical explanation than some sort of government conspiracy or arcane experiment. In this case the believers are violating the principle of Occam's Razor, the basic fallacy of looking for more complex and unlikely explanations when a simple and logical explanation is already available.
The government has repeatedly denied the existence of any special chemical component in contrails or any program to disperse chemicals in the atmosphere and the Air Force even released a full explanation of the phenomenon. Of course, those who really want to believe in conspiracies don't want to believe any claims from the government, so to satisfy them there are a number of scientific studies of contrails, mostly focusing on their potential impact on the environment and aerial navigation. The Discovery Channel even did a program on them in which they tested contrails for dangerous chemicals and found nothing significant. Chemtrail debunking websites are widespread, collecting large amounts of data and linking to all the scientific sources. One compiled by a Danish astronomer at the University of Copenhagen is particularly comprehensive.
Of course, the classic scenario with this particular conspiracy is that someone sees a contrail in the sky, gets sick and concludes that the contrail contained pathogens which brought on the illness. After all, common viruses and bacteria aren't a good enough explanation for the creeping nasties. A secret government plot makes so much more sense. This is a classic example of the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc or the failure to prove causation. In this fallacy the subject observes A and experiences B and assumes that A caused B even though there is no provable connection between the two which are really only related by coincidental timing or proximity. Unless he can test the chemicals in the contrail and test his own body and find them and prove that they can cause his malady there is no proof of a connection. The subject probably encountered scores of things that same day which didn't catch his attention like the contrail which were far more dangerous and more likely to cause his illness. In this case it is particularly illogical, because if he can see the contrail in the sky, then how can it also be at ground level making him ill? That fails the most basic test of common sense. How can the same substance be observed in one place and have an effect on someone more than 5 miles away at the same time?
Contrails are fascinating, but they are not a mystery. They're a beautiful but harmless byproduct of human technology. They are a well known and understood phenomenon which has been with us since man first took to the skies. We know exactly what they are and how they are created and how they behave. To try to replace that commonplace reality with extravagant and paranoid fantasy just makes no sense at all.
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"Every one of you listening to my voice, tell the world. Tell this to everybody, wherever they are. Watch the skies, everywhere, keep looking. Keep watching the skies." — The Thing