Contrail coverage over the United States before and during the COVID-19 pandemic

Meijer, V. R., L. Kulik, S. D. Eastham, F. Allroggen, R. L. Speth, S. Karaman, and S. Barrett (2022), Contrail coverage over the United States before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, Environmental Research Letters, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac26f0.

Contrails are potentially the largest contributor to aviation-attributable climate change, but estimates of their coverage are highly uncertain. No study has provided observation-based continental-scale estimates of the diurnal, seasonal, and regional variability in contrail coverage. We present contrail coverage estimates for the years 2018, 2019 and 2020 for the contiguous United States, derived by developing and applying a deep learning algorithm to over 100 000 satellite images. We estimate that contrails covered an area the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined in the years 2018 and 2019. Comparing 2019 and 2020, we quantify a 35.8% reduction in distance flown above 8 km altitude and an associated reduction in contrail coverage of 22.3%. We also find that the diurnal pattern in contrail coverage aligns with that of flight traffic, but that the amount of contrail coverage per distance flown decreases in the afternoon.

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Research Program: 
Atmospheric Composition Modeling and Analysis Program (ACMAP)
Funding Sources: 
Also MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative.