In day to day conversation, I am utterly guilty of discussing chemtrails without a great deal of seriousness.
I make terrible jokes – blaming them for any transient minor illness, taking photographs of contrails and posting them with faux-alarmist captions, setting up a satirical pro-chemtrail Facebook page. Many of my skeptical friends do this too; we use chemtrails as a punchlines in banter about conspiracy theorists and bizarre beliefs. They are up there with reptilians and the Illuminati.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa with Chemtrail. Katsushika Hokusai, 1831.
However, today I’m going to take a few moments to approach the subject a little more seriously… what is the conspiracy theory about, what are its ramifications, what is the simple and evidence-based explanation for the white trails across the sky left by aircraft?
Consistent with the bizarro world I’m writing from, last thing first – what are contrails?
Contrails: What Even Are They?
Contrails, a portmanteau of condensation and trail, are the white streaks left behind planes given favourable atmospheric conditions.
Aircraft fuel is composed primarily of hydrocarbons, these give off carbon dioxide and water vapour as their main combustion products. When these hot exhaust gases mix with rarefied cool air, the water in the gas freezes quickly and forms microscopic ice crystals, leaving trails of white haze. This haze is similar in look and chemical composition to cloud.
Dependent on the condensation in the atmosphere, contrails may dissipate quickly, or linger. The atmospheric conditions which support cirrus cloud formation – and the very moist atmosphere that results – can allow contrails to persist for hours.
For a more in-depth explanation of contrail formation and persistence, NASA have an excellent site devoted to the topic, the Contrail Education Project.
Chemtrail Conspiracy Theory, The Basics
Cover illustration from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Big Book of Victorian Chemtrails.
Contrails have been around for as long as modern aviation has.. but in the mid-1990s, the chemtrail conspiracy theory began to develop and spread.
The chemtrail (chemtrail being a portmanteau of “chemical” and “trail”) conspiracy theory takes many forms, but generally it is a belief that an authority – be it governmental, military, scientific or other (yes, the Illuminati, Zionists, “Elite” and reptilians all get a look in here) are using aircraft (often commercial aviation aircraft for greater concealment, sometimes miliatary aircraft) to conduct spraying of our skies.
The composition of the chemicals varies with different claims – aluminium, barium, strontium and silver feature highly.. occasionally biological agents are said to be involved. The purpose of the spraying varies widely also… the most popular belief seems to be that it is the facilitation of a geoengineering project to alter weather, reflect the sun’s rays or combat climate change. Other theories include spraying to control the population, to cause illness, to control minds, to vaccinate people without their consent. Some believers claim that chemtrail spraying is a form of military weapons testing.
Occasionally, chemtrail conspiracy theorists produce images of commercial passenger aircraft containing large connected barrels in place of seats as evidence that the aviation industry is involved in the spraying of chemicals, claiming that these are an aerosol dispersion system. In fact, they’re full of water – they are used by airlines to simulate the weight of passengers and cargo, to test different centers of gravity while the aircraft is in flight.
As with explanations of how contrails are formed however, the explanation of the purpose of the ballast barrels are often countered with claims of cover-ups and disinformation by those invested in chemtrail conspiracy theories. This is often a trouble with conspiracy theories; any debunking or rational explanation for phenomena is met by the true believer with distrust and often an expansion of the original theory to account for new information. To demonstrate this, an interesting exercise for skeptics can be to create a theory, then expand it to incorporate further conspiracies as information counter to the theory is encountered.
The “Evidence” for Chemtrails
In order to compile this report, I sat myself down to watch documentaries produced by chemtrail believers, “Why in the World are they Spraying?” and “What in the World are they Spraying?“.
Dear readers, I have made it through documentaries on Deepak Chopra, I’ve heard the stories of 9-11 Truthers, watched anti-vaccination propaganda, I’ve gotten through the entirety of Charlene Werner explaining the her understanding of the physics behind how homeopathy. I’ve sung along to Mike Adams’ raps about GMOs and the flu vaccination. Heck, I’ve watched all of Plan 9 From Outer Space and Vampyros Lesbos – I think that I have a fairly high tolerance for painful viewing.
I’ve attended Paranormal and Spiritual Expos and walked around the Mind Body Wallet Festival – I can generally cope with wacky ideas and claims. But the chemtrail documentaries… they had me beat. I got through perhaps half an hour of gish galloping before I just couldn’t take it anymore… so many claims with such flimsy evidence, where any was provided at all. Both documentaries are available in full on YouTube and if you can make it through even one, I salute you.
One thing that I’ll note – a scene in one of these documentaries showed a man walking about some bushland, pointing out trees which were dead or not thriving, attributing their state to chemtrail spraying. While I’m more familiar with rural Australia than I am the US, their evidence of chemtrails looked very much consistent to me with the effects of country going through drought conditions.
People interviewed on the documentary also attributed weather conditions consistent with what we’ve been experiencing worldwide over the past few years to chemtrail spraying. They claimed that geoengineering was taking place in an effort from the military and government to reflect the sun’s rays and reduce warming. This does make me wonder what the documentary makers’ position on anthropomorphic climate change is.
The Muppet Movie, with cameos from Big Bird and a chemtrail – much easier viewing!
So, aside from exposing your faithful reporter to some incredibly difficult viewing – what’s the harm in believing in chemtrail conspiracy theories? Overall, it can seem like a bit of relatively harmless kookiness, all things considered.
What’s the Harm to Society?
Anti-chemtrail activists are surprisingly active and visible – affixing corflute signs to trees and signposts around their neighbourhoods, writing letters to and petitioning MPs (one anti-chemtrail activist actually made it into the South Australian Parliament), holding protests against geoengineering and chemtrail spraying in cities across Australia. While I wholeheartedly support people becoming involved in political activism, in this case, I suspect that the resources MPs and police put toward responding to the chemtrail activists could be put to some better use.
The largest local chemtrail conspiracy group on Facebook, “Australia & New Zealand Against Chemtrails & Geoengineering”, boasts 8,393 members (as of 04/12/2014), which is almost five hundred more likes than anti-vaccination campaigners the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network currently have. Anti-chemtrail activists are visible and spreading their message.
Two years ago, an article ran in The Australian, reporting on threats being made by anti-chemtrail activists to harm pilots and shoot down commercial aircraft, stating that these threats were becoming more overt, prevalent and alarming. Australian Federal Police have monitored anti-chemtrail activists planning to intercept airline pilots at Sydney airport. Again, more police resources… while pilots in particular and aviation companies in general experience concern for their safety.
What’s the Harm to Believers?
Those were a few points demonstrating anti-chemtrail activism’s effect on the general public, but what about believers?
I don’t imagine that it feels wonderful to hold the belief that the government and/or the aviation industry and/or the Illuminati are out there, wielding power and spraying the skies, causing harm to the population.
Similar to anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists who believe that the medical establishment and government – and we’re talking doctors, nurses, researchers, pharmaceutical company employees, public health officials, journalists – are all out to harm them, anti-chemtrail activists subscribe to a rather far reaching conspiracy too. How far reaching? Off the top of my head, I’d assume that those in on the conspiracy would include the government, the military, the aviation industry (from CEOs to baggage handlers) aeronautical engineers involved in designing, assembling, maintaining and repairing aircraft, everybody employed by an airport, everybody involved in manufacturing and transporting the chemicals that they allege are being sprayed. Then perhaps emergency services workers – in case a plane went down, surely they’d need to know how to cover up evidence of chemical tanks and spraying.
That’s a heck of a lot of people who’d need to be working at keeping a substantially large secret, don’t you think? Therefore, that’s a heck of a lot of people who are willing to sacrifice the health of the general population in order to carry out some grand master plan.
This is a point that really gets me when it comes to those who subscribe to conspiracy theories such as these… the huge number of people that believers are willing to consider to be either malicious or stupid. It seems such a bleak view to hold of your fellow humans.
There’s also the general worry that I assume chemtrail believers experience to varying degrees. Imagine, if you will, watching the skies in fear and genuinely worrying for your health. While we might find the belief in a chemtrail conspiracy theory irrational, people do genuinely believe it nonetheless – and the concern, agitation and nocebo effect generated by this belief can be real.
Occasionally this fear regarding harm to health leads people to wear masks or scarves over their faces or spend time spraying vinegar in the air around them, which allegedly dissipates or neutralises chemtrail chemicals. Others turn to buying products specifically designed to provide protection – orgonite devices and solutions to be ingested (homeopathic or otherwise). In extreme cases, people relocate to so called “safe zones”, where aircraft are said not to be spraying.
Seurat’s “Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte, avec Chemtrail”
Finally, there’s the tendency of people who believe in one conspiracy theory to be open to others… and there are others which cause more direct and measurable harm to individuals and society, such as anti-vax conspiracies. It’s difficult to make decisions which will lead to positive social, health and well being outcomes for yourself and your loved ones if you have a strong distrust in scientific consensus and all authority.
Yes, I did mention social outcomes. While I do my utmost not to ridicule individuals – in fact, I have some sympathy for people living with the fear of what is in our skies – I do still think that chemtrails are one of the wackier and more far fetched conspiracy theories out there. Frankly, I can’t see the satire letting up any time soon.
This post an expansion of an Evidence, Please report featured on Episode #314 of The Skeptic Zone Podcast. It was featured in The Skeptic Magazine Vol 35 no 1, March 2015.