Physical and optical properties of persistent contrails: Climatology and interpretation

Hironobu Iwabuchi, Ping Yang, K. N. Liou, Patrick Minnis

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The physical and optical properties of persistent contrails were studied with the measurements made by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations (CALIPSO) lidar. MODIS data were used to determine the contrail locations on the basis of their artificial shapes easily distinguished from natural cirrus, and the so-identified contrails were analyzed with collocated CALIPSO lidar data. Statistics of the geography, geometry, meteorology, and optical properties are reported for approximately 3400 persistent contrails observed over North America, the North Atlantic Ocean, and Europe. The majority of the detected contrails appear in ice-supersaturated air with temperatures lower than -40°C. On average, contrails have significantly larger backscattering coefficients and slightly higher linear depolarization ratios (LDRs) than neighboring cirrus clouds. Depolarization tends to be strong when ice crystals are small, and LDR is approximately 0.4-0.45 for young contrails and contrail cores. The mean LDR for the detected contrails increases with decreasing temperature and is not strongly dependent on the lidar pointing angle. The backscattering properties suggest that contrails are primarily composed of small, randomly oriented ice crystals but may also contain a few horizontally oriented plates. Most contrails are optically thin with a mean (median) optical thickness of approximately 0.19 (0.14); however, optically thicker contrails do exist and tend to occur in warmer and more humid ambient air. The mean value and range of the observed LDR data are consistent with theoretical predictions based on a mixture of nonspherical ice crystals randomly oriented in the atmosphere.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberD06215
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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