In a first of its kind effort, a large group of top atmospheric chemists has weighed in on one of the most persistent conspiracy theories on the internet: that the U.S. government is involved in a campaign to deliberately spray chemicals from planes at high altitudes.
This “chemtrails” conspiracy theory is bunk, the experts conclude in a new study published this week in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
Chemtrails is a conspiracy theory that pops up frequently in Reddit comment threads, on Twitter, dedicated chemtrails websites and Instagram photos of aircraft.
Many pilots who use Instagram have gone along with the idea, mockingly, by placing chemtrails stickers on their suitcases, and falsely labeling levers in the flight deck as chemtrail on/off switches.
The study, from the University of California at Irvine, the Carnegie Institution for Science and the nonprofit organization Near Zero surveyed 77 atmospheric chemists and geochemists to see if they have come across any evidence of a large-scale chemtrail spraying program.
A total of 76 out of the 77 experts said that they have not come across any such evidence that supports chemtrail theories.
These experts were also asked to examine the most common pieces of evidence cited by chemtrail proponents, such as the unusual persistence of aircraft contrails and supposedly high levels of particular chemicals found in soil samples.
The study found that such chemical analyses were flawed, and that the mainstream view on aircraft contrails is the most likely explanation for why some persist longer than others.
The mainstream scientific view on contrails is that heat and water vapor from aircraft engines produces condensation in the cold, dry upper atmosphere. Such trails, known as contrails, can be seen from the ground.
It is these trails that conspiracy theorists have focused on. To chemtrails believers, the chemicals being sprayed could be used to control the food supply, promote population control, or manipulate weather patterns. Some even think it is a scheme to either fight, or possibly create, climate change.
“A small but vocal segment of the population firmly believes that these are composed not merely of condensed water vapor but of chemicals and elements such as strontium, barium and aluminum that powerful, high-level entities have been intentionally and covertly releasing into the atmosphere for decades,” a press release associated with the study states.
“They find the increased number and lingering presence of these aerial streaks suspicious and claim to have identified toxic substances in soil and water samples.”
Unlikely to convince die-hard conspiracy theorists
The study’s authors note that, despite the thorough debunking, they face an uphill battle when it comes to changing minds with this research.
“Our goal is not to sway those already convinced that there is a secret, large-scale spraying program who often reject counter-evidence as further proof of their theories but rather to establish a source of objective science that can inform public discourse,” the study states.
Study co-author Steven Davis, an associate professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, said the chemtrails conspiracy theory is tied to the growth of the internet. The study also cites evidence that it is linked to growing distrust of elites and social institutions.
The chemtrails conspiracy theory maps pretty closely to the origin and growth of the internet, where you can still find a number of websites that promote this particular brand of pseudoscience, he said in a press release.
Our survey found little agreement in the scientific community with claims that the government, the military, airlines and others are colluding in a widespread, nefarious program to poison the planet from the skies.
Ken Caldeira, a co-author of the study who is a well-known climate change researcher, said this was the first peer-reviewed study “showing that what some people think are chemtrails are just ordinary contrails.”
The growth of the conspiracy theory also parallels the expansion of the aviation sector worldwide, he said in a statement.
Contrails are becoming more abundant as air travel expands. Also, it is possible that climate change is causing contrails to persist for longer than they used to, Caldeira said.
Davis, of U.C. Irvine, said that despite the nearly unanimous results, the study won’t be the last word on this issue.
We dont imagine that were going to sway the beliefs of hardcore adherents to the chemtrails conspiracy theory with this study,” he said in a statement. “But we thought it was important to go on the record with fundamental scientific facts to refute claims that the government is deliberately spreading harmful chemicals from aircraft.