Contrails (short for "condensation trails") or vapour trails are artificial clouds that are the visible trails of condensed water vapour made by the exhaust of aircraft engines. As the hot exhaust gases cool in the surrounding air they may precipitate a cloud of microscopic water droplets. If the air is cold enough, this trail will comprise tiny ice crystals.
The wingtip vortices which trail from the wingtips and wing flaps of aircraft are sometimes partly visible due to condensation in the cores of the vortices. Each vortex is a mass of spinning air and the air pressure at the centre of the vortex is very low. These wingtip vortices are not the same as contrails.
Depending on atmospheric conditions, contrails may be visible for only a few seconds or minutes, or may persist for many hours which may affect climate.
Condensation from engine exhaust
The main byproducts of hydrocarbon fuel combustion are carbon dioxide and water vapor. At high altitudes this water vapour emerges into a cold environment, and the local increase in water vapor can push the water content of the air past saturation point. The vapour then condenses into tiny water droplets and/or deposits into ice. These millions of tiny water droplets and/or ice crystals form the vapour trail or contrails. The vapor's need to condense accounts for the contrail forming some way behind the aircraft's engines. At high altitudes, supercooled water vapor requires a trigger to encourage deposition or condensation. The exhaust particles in the aircraft's exhaust act as this trigger, causing the trapped vapor to rapidly turn to ice crystals. Exhaust vapour trails or contrails usually occur above 8000 meters (26,000 feet), and only if the temperature there is below -40°C (-40°F).
Condensation from decreases in pressure
As a wing generates lift, it causes a vortex to form at each wingtip, and sometimes also at the tip of each wing flap. These wingtip vortices persist in the atmosphere long after the aircraft has passed. The reduction in pressure and temperature across each vortex can cause water to condense and make the cores of the wingtip vortices visible. This effect is more common on humid days. Wingtip vortices can sometimes be seen behind the wing flaps of airliners during takeoff and landing, and during landing of the Space shuttle.
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