USGS - science for a changing world

The USGS Water Science School

Water Science Photo Gallery
Condensation: "Contrails" made by a high-flying airplanes, over Lake Jackson, Florida, USA

You've seen the cloud-like trails that high-flying airplanes leave behind and you probably know they are called contrails. Maybe you didn't know they were called that because they are actually condensation trails and, in fact, are not much different than natural clouds. If the exhaust from the airplane contains water vapor, and if the air is very cold (which it is at high altitudes), then the water vapor in the exhaust will condense out into what is essentially a cirrus cloud. As this picture shows, contrails start out as thin ribbons but with upper-atmosphere winds, they can dissipate and essentially form much larger sets of cirrus clouds.

 Back to The water cycle: Precipitation | Condensation | Atmosphere

Photo of a condensation trails made by a high-flying airplanes, over Lake Jackson, Florida. Credit: Betsy Kellenberger.

Credit: Betsy Kellenberger

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices

USA.gov logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
URL: http://water.usgs.gov/edu/gallery/contrails.html
Page Contact Information: Howard Perlman
Page Last Modified: Friday, 02-May-2014 09:29:37 EDT