The dependence of contrail formation on the weather pattern and altitude in the North Atlantic
Irvine, E.A., Hoskins, B.J. and Shine, K.P. (2012) The dependence of contrail formation on the weather pattern and altitude in the North Atlantic. Geophysical Research Letters, 39 (12). L12802. ISSN 0094-8276
To link to this article DOI: 10.1029/2012GL051909
Aircraft flying through cold ice-supersaturated air produce persistent contrails which contribute to the climate impact of aviation. Here, we demonstrate the importance of the weather situation, together with the route and altitude of the aircraft through this, on estimating contrail coverage. The results have implications for determining the climate impact of contrails as well as potential mitigation strategies. Twenty-one years of re-analysis data are used to produce a climatological assessment of conditions favorable for persistent contrail formation between 200 and 300 hPa over the north Atlantic in winter. The seasonal-mean frequency of cold ice-supersaturated regions is highest near 300 hPa, and decreases with altitude. The frequency of occurrence of ice-supersaturated regions varies with large-scale weather pattern; the most common locations are over Greenland, on the southern side of the jet stream and around the northern edge of high pressure ridges. Assuming aircraft take a great circle route, as opposed to a more realistic time-optimal route, is likely to lead to an error in the estimated contrail coverage, which can exceed 50% for westbound north Atlantic flights. The probability of contrail formation can increase or decrease with height, depending on the weather pattern, indicating that the generic suggestion that flying higher leads to fewer contrails is not robust.