On the Life Cycle of Individual Contrails and Contrail Cirrus

Ulrich Schumann Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, Institut für Physik der Atmosphäre, Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany

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Andrew J. Heymsfield National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado

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Abstract

The life cycle of individual (initially line shaped) contrails behind aircraft and of contrail cirrus (aged contrails mixed with other ice clouds) is described. The full contrail life cycle is covered, from ice formation for given water, heat, and particulate emissions; to changes in the jet, wake, and dispersion phases; through final sublimation or sedimentation. Contrail properties are deduced from various in situ, remote sensing, and model studies. Aerodynamically induced contrails and distrails are explained briefly. Contrails form both in clear air and inside cirrus. Young contrails consume most of the ambient ice supersaturation. Optical properties of contrails are age and humidity dependent. Contrail occurrence and radiative forcing depends on the ambient Earth–atmosphere conditions. Contrail cirrus seems to be optically thicker than assessed previously and may not only increase cirrus coverage but also thicken existing cirrus. Some observational constraints for contrail cirrus occurrence and radiative forcing are derived. Key parameters controlling contrail properties—besides aircraft and fuel properties, ambient pressure, temperature, and humidity—are the number of ice particles per flight distance surviving the wake vortex phase, the contrail depth, and particle sedimentation, wind shear, turbulence, and vertical motions controlling contrail dispersion. The climate impact of contrails depends among other things on the ratio of shortwave to longwave radiative forcing (RF) and on the efficacy with which contrail RF contributes to surface warming. Several open issues are identified, including renucleation from residuals of sublimated contrail ice particles.

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Corresponding author e-mail: Ulrich Schumann,