By Nick Pope


Nobody disputes that when you see an airplane high in the sky, you often see a white trail behind the aircraft. Nobody disputes that the sky is sometimes filled with numerous such trails. Are these simply aircraft contrails or, as increasing numbers of people believe, are these the tell-tale signs that the government (or maybe the shadow government) is spraying chemicals into the atmosphere as part of a covert program? This article will examine so-called chemtrails, look at various different theories about them and try to make sense of one of the most intriguing mysteries and conspiracy theories of the modern age.

Contrails or Chemtrails?

Contrail is an abbreviation for condensation trail – the water vapor or ice crystals trail emitted from aircraft engines. However, many people believe that some of these trails contain not water vapor and ice crystals, but chemical (or maybe biological) agents. There’s no agreement on precisely when or where the idea of chemtrails first emerged, but the broad consensus is that it dates from the mid-Nineties.

Theories about the purpose of such a program vary. Some believe the aim is to modify the weather, perhaps in an attempt to slow down climate change – an issue that is, itself, the subject of huge controversy and numerous conspiracy theories. Others think it’s part of a behavior modification program or – at the extreme end of the conspiracy spectrum – that chemtrails are slowly poisoning vast numbers of people, as part of a mass-extermination program aimed at bringing the world’s population down to a sustainable level.

Proponents of such theories claim that chemtrails are far more persistent than ordinary contrails and say that a key indicator of chemtrails is a distinctive crisscross pattern across the sky – caused by aircraft flying methodically backwards and forwards to ensure total coverage. Skeptics say that contrail persistency varies according to the prevailing atmospheric conditions (in terms of temperature and humidity) and that trails can remain visible for a period of time varying between a few seconds and several hours. Believers claim there are far more trails in the sky than there used to be and say this proves something over and above contrails is involved. Skeptics argue that air travel is much more common now than it was, say, 30 years ago and say that in any case, it’s difficult for someone to make a meaningful comparative analysis between the situation now and the situation they think they recall from their childhood.

Weather Modification

Proponents of the existence of chemtrails have a strong card to play in the debate. Weather modification technology isn’t science fiction – it’s science fact. At the low end of the scale is the ability to make it rain in arid areas by seeding clouds with silver iodide. While this has a humanitarian side, as far back as the Vietnam War, this technique was being used by the military. Operation Popeye was a program to make it rain on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, bogging down the main Vietcong supply route.

The Chinese government has a bureau of weather modification that was catapulted into the public eye during the 2008 Olympic Games, when they claimed that weather modification techniques would be used to prevent it raining on the main Olympic stadium. The Russian government has undertaken extensive work in this area, as have many other governments and private corporations all around the world.

There’s a fine line between weather modification, weather control and a weather weapon. US Government research programs such as Project Stormfury may have been aimed at lessening the effects of a hurricane, but where does it end? Suppose you can change the direction of a hurricane. The same technology that could save lives is the technology that could steer a Category 5 hurricane onto a country that might not even realize it was the target of a deliberate attack. Given the military applications of weather modification, it’s likely that what’s been publicly declared isn’t the whole story. And if some such programs are classified, as many suggest, are chemtrails that far-fetched?

Of course, just because we can modify the weather, it doesn’t follow that chemtrails are real. But, some people argue, it shows that there’s some hard science underpinning the idea of chemtrails, elevating the controversy beyond some baseless conspiracy theory.

Skeptical Views

Skeptics are scathing about chemtrails. They highlight the fact that believers can’t even agree on what the aim of the chemtrails program is: weather control, behavior modification or mass-poisoning? If it’s either of the last two, they point out that the people organizing the program are themselves getting sprayed, as are their families. A possible counter-argument is that there’s some sort of vaccine that the favored few can use to immunize themselves against any harmful effects.

Another skeptical argument is to point out that from the sorts of heights involved (a commercial airliner typically cruises at around 37,000 feet) there could be no way to control where any noxious chemicals contained in chemtrails would actually fall. Perhaps that doesn’t matter if the aim is to poison us all. But a related skeptical argument is that not only does spraying from a great height mean that you can’t target with any accuracy, it means you can’t target with any effect. Consider how low a crop-spraying aircraft has to fly for the pesticide to have any meaningful effect. Why aren’t chemtrails sprayed from a lower height? Once again, of course, there’s a possible counter-argument: if chemtrails are sprayed from 37,000 feet, the aircraft activity looks normal. But if the sorts of aircraft people think are responsible for chemtrails started operating at low level, people would notice.

An Official Response

A few years ago, the default position of governments was generally to ignore conspiracy theories, if possible. The thinking was that engaging in any way legitimized the claims to some extent and gave them “the oxygen of publicity”. NASA, for example, was notoriously reluctant to debate people who claimed that the moon landings were faked. Far better, the thinking went, to ignore such people and imply their views are so off-base, debate is pointless. The unspoken accusation was that anyone who questioned the official version was a crackpot.

Recently, this policy has changed. NASA placed material on its website addressing some of the rumors about Comet Elenin. NASA also added a section on Mayan prophesies, entitled 2012: Beginning of the End or Why the World Won't End? The State Department website has extensive material addressing many of the most popular conspiracy theories about 9/11. So it is with chemtrails, where the United States Air Force addressed the issue head-on, as part of a more extensive publication entitled Contrails Facts. The USAF approach was a clever one. The material appears at the end of the publication under the title The “Chemtrail” Hoax – the use of the inverted commas and the word hoax in the title reinforcing the view that this isn’t a serious issue. An allegation is placed under the heading “Claim”, with the official response being given under the heading “Fact”. Claim/fact implies lie/truth.

Chemtrails in the Media

If you type the word “Chemtrails” into a search engine, you’ll get literally millions of hits. But if you search a site like Google News, you’ll find comparatively little mention of the subject – and very little on any mainstream news sites. Why the disparity? How can a subject have such a huge online footprint and yet be so ignored by the media? Believers would say that this is because the mainstream media is itself part of the Establishment and is complicit in a cover-up. Skeptics argue that the media is clearly not afraid to take on the powers that be (Watergate is probably the best example) and is therefore not part of the Establishment. Skeptics would doubtless say that the reason for the lack of mainstream news media coverage is that chemtrails are a complete non-issue.

I think that whatever the truth about chemtrails, something that’s discussed and debated so extensively and so passionately is inherently newsworthy. I would argue the same about conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, which – in common with chemtrails – get surprisingly little mainstream media coverage given the numbers of people debating the subject online and involved in the activist community.

As with 9/11 conspiracy theories, it’s the activist community that takes the lead on the attempt to push the chemtrail issue into the mainstream. And as with 9/11, it’s a cult documentary film that’s leading the charge. What in the World Are They Spraying? is to chemtrails what Loose Change is to 9/11. This film was made in 2010 for an estimated budget of $50,000 and has now become the work that most chemtrail aficionados cite when talking about their subject.


As is the case with mysteries such as UFOs and with conspiracy theories about JFK or 9/11, I expect the debate about chemtrails will run and run. One reason for this is the self-evident fact that trails are always going to be seen behind aircraft, whatever you believe is in them. So unlike some ideas held by the alternative belief/conspiracy theory community (e.g. a false flag alien invasion at the 2012 Olympic Games, or the world ending on December 21 2012), there’s no definitive date on which the issue will be resolved one way or the other.

Keep watching the skies!

A slightly edited version of this article was published on Time Warner's TruTV Conspiratorium website.