Google Research and Breakthrough Energy chose American Airlines to research climate change mitigation strategies. Aviation plays a major role in climate change, contributing around 3.5% to global warming caused by humans. Contrails, the artificial clouds created by airplanes, are one of the main factors contributing to this problem as they trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere. Thus, its mitigation of aviation’s impact on global warming can reduce up to 1% of human contributions to climate change.

The impact of aviation on climate change is substantial, as airplane emissions alone account for approximately 3.5% of the total global warming caused by human activities. Airliners can create contrails, which are artificial clouds formed by ice crystals around particles in the planes’ exhaust.

Scientists believe that reducing these clouds in the Earth’s atmosphere could potentially slow down the process of global warming by minimizing the heat trapped within them, according to the findings from Breakthrough Energy and Google researchers.

Reducing contrails has been referred to as the most impactful climate opportunity known to us by Marc Shapiro, the distinguished leader of contrails at Breakthrough Energy. It is equal to eliminate carbon from the atmosphere, with a mere cost of 10 dollars per ton or even less.

By utilizing knowledge obtained from satellite observation, empowered by machine learning, airlines can pilot their aircraft in a way that prevents the formation of contrails. To prevent the formation of persistent contrails, it is crucial to steer clear of the humid “ice supersaturated regions” in the atmosphere. Generally, this necessitates altering altitude in a manner like what pilots already do to evade areas of turbulence.

Contrail control science started in the 1940s to develop stealthier military planes. However, in the 1990s, scientists discovered that cirrus clouds have a warming effect on the atmosphere. Not only can aircraft contrails form these cirrus clouds, but they also bear a striking resemblance to each other. Contrails accounted for about 35% of the aviation sector’s contribution to global warming in the past year, as stated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In 2022, Breakthrough Energy, an organization established by Bill Gates with the aim of advancing climate solutions, and Google’s Research division, joined forces to develop a pioneering solution after independently creating models to predict contrail formation.

Also See: Air Company and Air Force Collaborate to Create Jet Fuel from Just Air and Water

Utilizing data from NASA’s GOES-16 weather satellite, among other key weather indicators, their approach is truly revolutionary. In order to anticipate the occurrence of contrail-conducive areas, the developers were required to educate the machine-learning software by helping it identify contrails within their dataset.

In order to carry out a practical product test, American Airlines was chosen by the two organizations. The predictions were incorporated into the flight planning software used by the pilots. Throughout January to March 2023, a total of 70 flights were conducted, during which pilots flew both modified and standard routes.

This was done in order to generate valuable comparisons between the two. The researchers concluded that their software was able to reduce contrail creation by 54% by examining satellite data after the flights.

Jill Blickstein, VP of American sustainability, said, “All airlines are going to have to do this eventually—[in] years, not decades.”

American Airlines’ climate change mitigation strategies still have some unresolved issues to address. The extra maneuvering notably resulted in a significant 2% increase in Americans’ fuel consumption, a number that Blickstein describes as truly consequential and said, “We don’t take additional expense lightly. In addition to purchasing additional fuel, it is crucial to ensure that the environmental advantages of avoiding contrails are greater than the accompanying emissions.”

The three organizations have big plans to broaden these experiments, including more airlines and air traffic control organizations in their endeavors. Specifically, they aim to focus on night flights in low-density airspace, such as transatlantic routes. Contrails formed during the nighttime have a significantly greater impact on the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Deploying this technology across airlines is a relatively simple process, as it involves integrating it as an additional “weather data layer” into existing flight planning software, according to Shapiro. However, careful consideration must be given to the potential impact such new maneuvers would have on air traffic. Using satellite data to optimize flight paths and reduce fuel consumption has encountered obstacles in coordination with air traffic controllers.

The commercial deployment of this service has not been clarified yet. Google and Breakthrough consider it as fundamental research that supports their dedication to reducing carbon footprints. Blickstein mentions that American is delighted to participate in this research, emphasizing that even if there are any improvements in reducing climate impact, it would not alter the airline’s commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. This is due to the fact that the available data is not detailed enough to accurately calculate the specific contrail contributions of a single airline.

The vision of Breakthrough is to establish a self-sufficient organization that can gather contrail data and offer reliable verification. The ultimate goal is for the organization to serve as a clearing house, supported by airlines, similar to the International Airline Trade Association. It will be a place where global coordination in the air travel industry takes place.

Blickstein says, “We can do a lot with a coarse estimate. The potential is there to reduce about 1% of human contribution to global warming, if we can just fly the planes in the right places.”

Source How Breakthrough Energy’s Contrails Team is Helping to Reduce Aviation’s Climate Impact


Elliot is a passionate environmentalist and blogger who has dedicated his life to spreading awareness about conservation, green energy, and renewable energy. With a background in environmental science, he has a deep understanding of the issues facing our planet and is committed to educating others on how they can make a difference.

Leave A Reply