A brief explainer on the chemtrail conspiracy theory

Hot weather sees the plot that planes are pumping poison into the skies take off again – but is there any truth in the theory?

If you’re into your conspiracy theories – or are just a huge lana stan – chances are you have heard of chemtrails before.

These white lines trailing behind planes in the sky are actually called streaks, and these are essentially water vapor trails and a trace amount of soot particles, crystallizing into ice at high altitudes and visible from below. But in slightly more esoteric circles, contrails aren’t the only thing emitted by planes. Walk in chemtrails. The conspirators believe that if streaks could exist, some of the white streaks last too long and are too big to be just water vapor – instead they think they must be made up of other chemicals. Many proponents of the theory argue that these “other chemicals” are deliberately and infamously sprayed into the atmosphere by the government for a myriad of reasons.

This theory has been circulating the internet for decades. In the late 1990s, Internet forums began to propagate the idea that the The US government was spraying citizens with chemicals, leading US aviation and environmental agencies to desperately try to ground the narrative. Since then it has flown around the world, reaching the UK government in 2005 when MP David Drew asked about the effects of chemtrailsa bit like this time brass eye got politicians talking about an invented drug called Cake. The theory never really died out, instead it just grew in popularity.

Jason Pearce, moderator of Chemtrails United Kingdom – a Facebook community where thousands of dedicated followers endlessly photograph trails from Sunderland to Southampton – explains further. “The chemtrail theory is based on various different ideas and beliefs that the white lines sprayed by planes that occur year-round now are done intentionally,” says Pearce. “It’s not just water vapor, but a concoction of different chemical pollutants and gases that are trapped in the high altitudes of our atmosphere.”

This basic view, it seems, is about where the consensus ends. First, there is the issue of aircraft; some think only military jets get us dirty, others think commercial airlines are in on it too. Then there are the chemicals – what exactly are we being sprayed with? Popular suggestions include barium, strontium, and sulfur, or, if you’re feeling wild, vaccines. In short, anything but ice crystals.

Why do these people think we are pulverized? “There are many different ideas and conclusions as to why they are sprayed,” says Pearce. These include “deliberately blocking out the sun”, increasing the “frequency of cell phones”, some form of “mind control” or “hiding the infamous planet Nibiru” which, it is said, it, has a “constantly changing collision date”. Notice a bit of sarcasm? Well, even as the band’s figurehead, Pearce is actually surprisingly moderate in his opinions, thinking that “these wackier ideas could have been planted in the minds of the people to stop all debate and discussion about the subject”, making us think that anyone who talks about chemtrails is a “a conspiracy loon that should have a tinfoil hat on its head”.

Of course, a lot of people in the group, uh, are a bit goofy. While Pearce rightly draws attention to the negative effects of aviation on the environment and the complex nature of pollution, many other chemtrail-truthers spout climate-denying bullshit. JThe feverish echo chamber also leads to a psychosomatic discussion of symptoms – from headaches to altered menses, to “dog’s farts” weird smelling – all supposedly caused by chemtrails.

As with the symptoms, it is the subjectivity and invisibility of the theory itself that makes it so contagious. Although science can prove the composition of contrails, it cannot do so in a simple and neat way, which leads to false science. Like most of the most successful conspiracy theories, it is based on an invisible force as mysterious and microscopic as Covid-19 particles or 5G waves. Equally, however, it is easily “accessible”: just look at the sky and you can see the “proof” for yourself.

Why is the theory picking up again at this time? Last month, chemtrails were trending on twitter, propelling heated discussion and forcing a host of media outlets to once again denounce the theory. “I think there’s been a bit of a renaissance this year,” says Sarah Turnnidge, fact checker and reporter at Complete fact. The site has been pumped coins on the chemtrails this year (seven, she says, so far) aimed at cutting out hot air.

“Chemtrails tend to evolve during these heat waves,” Turnnidge notes, which makes sense: contrails last longer in the sky in hot weather, because the higher the humidity, the longer the ice crystals take to dissipate. Additionally, clearer days create ideal conditions for spotting chemtrails. This, combined with the fact that, as Turnnidge puts it, COVID-19 has “created a ripe space for this stuff,” equals a perfect storm. Pearce also notes that he witnessed a “massive surge of thousands of people joining” Chemtrails UK after the first lockdown.

Paradoxically, for some proponents of the theory, the high temperatures serve as “evidence” for the truth of the chemtrail theory. Apparently they prove that the government deliberately sprays chemicals to trap heat to create a fake climate crisis. But the idea that planes are heating up the planet to create a fake climate crisis – justifying new restrictions etc. – is weird. A much simpler assumption is that airplanes are heating up the planet and that’s contributing to the very real climate crisis, which is, you know, true.

Additionally, while science can be unequivocal that contrails are nothing more than water vapor, water vapor is not “harmless” — it is a greenhouse gas that traps heat. Pearce adds that he thinks the government is “focusing too much on CO2 and ignoring other gases” and that the jet companies are “trying to trick us into saying these jets are only pumping water vapour”, when water vapor has an impact on the climate and planes also pump soot particles.

Where you are, streaks are actually bad for the environment – current science suggests that they could create 57 percent of aviation’s climate impact. Worse still, they are actually preventable, with altitude changes of just 2,000 feet preventing them from forming, which would reduce aviation emissions. “We could reduce the Earth’s temperature overnight if planes were flying at a height where the heat-trapping trailing cirrus clouds [clouds] didn’t form,” Pearce says. He scores a point. This does not mean the CO2 and NO2 that are actually pumped by fuel combustion, although this is not part of the visible drag itself.

So while those white lines in the sky may not be spraying mind-altering chemicals over cities and towns, they are a real part of the planet’s destructive pollution from aviation. So the next time you find yourself on a plane, sit back and relax knowing that it’s not secretly pumping aluminum or AstraZeneca vaccines – just good old greenhouse gases!

Sharon D. Cole