Aviation and the Global Atmosphere

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4.4. Water Vapor

Most subsonic aircraft water vapor emissions are released in the troposphere where they are rapidly removed by precipitation within 1 to 2 weeks. A smaller fraction of water vapor emissions is released in the lower stratosphere where it can build up to larger concentrations. Because water vapor is a greenhouse gas, these increases tend to warm the Earth's surface, though for subsonic aircraft this effect is smaller than those of other aircraft emissions such as carbon dioxide and NOx.

4.5. Contrails

In 1992, aircraft line-shaped contrails are estimated to cover about 0.1% of the Earth's surface on an annually averaged basis with larger regional values. Contrails tend to warm the Earth's surface, similar to thin high clouds. The contrail cover is projected to grow to 0.5% by 2050 in the reference scenario (Fa1), at a rate which is faster than the rate of growth in aviation fuel consumption.

This faster growth in contrail cover is expected because air traffic will increase mainly in the upper troposphere where contrails form preferentially, and may also occur as a result of improvements in aircraft fuel efficiency. Contrails are triggered from the water vapor emitted by aircraft and their optical properties depend on the particles emitted or formed in the aircraft plume and on the ambient atmospheric conditions. The radiative effect of contrails depends on their optical properties and global cover, both of which are uncertain. Contrails have been observed as line-shaped clouds by satellites over heavy air traffic areas and covered on average about 0.5% of the area over Central Europe in 1996 and 1997.  

4.6. Cirrus Clouds

Extensive cirrus clouds have been observed to develop after the formation of persistent contrails. Increases in cirrus cloud cover (beyond those identified as line-shaped contrails) are found to be positively correlated with aircraft emissions in a limited number of studies. About 30% of the Earth is covered with cirrus cloud. On average an increase in cirrus cloud cover tends to warm the surface of the Earth. An estimate for aircraft-induced cirrus cover for the late 1990s ranges from 0 to 0.2% of the surface of the Earth. For the Fa1 scenario, this may possibly increase by a factor of 4 (0 to 0.8%) by 2050; however, the mechanisms associated with increases in cirrus cover are not well understood and need further investigation.

4.7. Sulfate and Soot Aerosols

The aerosol mass concentrations in 1992 resulting from aircraft are small relative to those caused by surface sources. Although aerosol accumulation will grow with aviation fuel use, aerosol mass concentrations from aircraft in 2050 are projected to remain small compared to surface sources. Increases in soot tend to warm while increases in sulfate tend to cool the Earth's surface. The direct radiative forcing of sulfate and soot aerosols from aircraft is small compared to those of other aircraft emissions. Because aerosols influence the formation of clouds, the accumulation of aerosols from aircraft may play a role in enhanced cloud formation and change the radiative properties of clouds.

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