Articles | Volume 6, issue 2
Earth Syst. Dynam., 6, 555–568, 2015
Earth Syst. Dynam., 6, 555–568, 2015

Research article 02 Sep 2015

Research article | 02 Sep 2015

Ice supersaturation and the potential for contrail formation in a changing climate

E. A. Irvine and K. P. Shine E. A. Irvine and K. P. Shine
  • Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Reading, UK

Abstract. Ice supersaturation (ISS) in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere is important for the formation of cirrus clouds and long-lived contrails. Cold ISS (CISS) regions (taken here to be ice-supersaturated regions with temperature below 233 K) are most relevant for contrail formation. We analyse projected changes to the 250 hPa distribution and frequency of CISS regions over the 21st century using data from the Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 simulations for a selection of Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 models. The models show a global-mean, annual-mean decrease in CISS frequency by about one-third, from 11 to 7% by the end of the 21st century, relative to the present-day period 1979–2005. Changes are analysed in further detail for three subregions where air traffic is already high and increasing (Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes) or expected to increase (tropics and Northern Hemisphere polar regions). The largest change is seen in the tropics, where a reduction of around 9 percentage points in CISS frequency by the end of the century is driven by the strong warming of the upper troposphere. In the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes the multi-model-mean change is an increase in CISS frequency of 1 percentage point; however the sign of the change is dependent not only on the model but also on latitude and season. In the Northern Hemisphere polar regions there is an increase in CISS frequency of 5 percentage points in the annual mean. These results suggest that, over the 21st century, climate change may have large impacts on the potential for contrail formation; actual changes to contrail cover will also depend on changes to the volume of air traffic, aircraft technology and flight routing.

Short summary
Aviation impacts on climate via contrails, which are often clearly visible in the sky. Contrail formation requires particular cold/moist atmospheric conditions at aircraft cruise altitudes. Climate change is expected to change these conditions. Using simulations from several climate models we conclude that, by 2100, the probability of contrail formation could decrease from 11 to 7%, mostly due to changing conditions in the tropics. There is no consensus on the likely change in mid-latitudes.
Final-revised paper