Data suggests airplanes cause more snowfall near major airports

NOAA researcher say the impact of airplanes on cloud cover is similar to those of "cloud seeding."
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor
Aircraft-induced hole at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide Camp in Antarctica. Photo provided by Eric Zrubek and Michael Carmody; courtesy of Science/AAAS

Turns out that living near an airport might affect your outlook on life.

New research published in the journal Science, suggests that the way that planes take off when there is cloud cover contributes to snowfall. Yes, I know that it's summer in most places in the United States, but the photo to the right shows the "hole" that a plane can create.

The theory goes something like this: when airplanes cut through clouds, it creates an effect that is similar to cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a form of weather modification taken to stimulate or affect precipitation. Yes, planes are often used to help drop the catalyst, but they also may be contributing a little something extra. When a plane creates a hole in a cloud that contains super cooled water, it can lead to increased snowfall. That might mean, in turn, that airports might be forced to de-ice plans more often.

The research upon which the article referenced above is based comes from a series of observations collected by scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research across the United States. The data suggest that supercooled clouds caused by aircraft can be found within 62 miles of the world's major airports within 5 percent and 6 percent of the time.

Andrew Heymsfield, a NOAA researcher, told the journal Science:

"Whether an airplane creates a hole or canal in the clouds depends on its trajectory. When they climb through a supercooled cloud layer, they can just produce a hole. But when they fly level through the cloud layer, they can produce long canals."

The researchers stop short of suggesting that this phenomenon is a contributor to climate change, rather that it helps explain certain local weather patterns that occur near airports. At the best, maybe it could impact the scheduling of takeoffs and landings. NOAA plans to turn its attention to tropical climates next.

Still, I found it intriguing that this report came out just as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to propose new emissions standards for large commercial aircraft, including 737, 747 and 767 models.

The EPA says that its proposal would cut ground-level nitrogen oxide emissions by 100,000 tons nationwide by 2030. The agency's rationale is that the cuts are necessary because these emissions aggravate certain lung diseases. Comments on the regulation are being collected over the next 60 days; these standards already have a thumbs-up from the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization. If they are adopted, they would apply to all new engines by 2013.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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