The ‘Chemtrail Conspiracy’

Dave Thomas Volume 18.3, September 2008

0006_chemtrail_tic_tac_toeWhy are some people afraid of contrails? Why would the appearance of water vapor in the exhaust of a jet inspire feelings of illness and dread? It all began in the 1990s when “investigative journalists” like William Thomas began describing purported plots by the government to inject poisons into the atmosphere via the exhaust trails of jet planes. Chemtrails are defined on the Web site of Internet pundit Jeff Rense (formerly of the “Sightings” Web radio show, which was connected to the “Sightings” television program produced by Henry Winkler):

Chemtrails (CTs) look like contrails initially, but are much thicker, extend across the sky and are often laid down in varying patterns of Xs, tick-tack-toe grids, cross-hatched and parallel lines. Instead of quickly dissipating, chemtrails expand and drip feathers and mare’s tails. In 30 minutes or less, they open into wispy formations which join together, forming a thin white veil or a ‘fake cirrus-type cloud’ that persists for hours. . . . (Thayer 2000)

“Chemtrails” have been described as either a means of carrying out biological warfare upon the citizenry of the United States or as a method of weather modification, perhaps related to mitigation of global warming. The subject was popularized by late-night radio host Art Bell over a decade ago and is still hyped as a daring and dangerous conspiracy by numerous Web sites.

In 1999, the New Mexico Attorney General’s office contacted New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR) member Kim Johnson to help answer questions from constituents regarding the alleged dangers of “chemtrails.” After his investigation, John­son told the Attorney General,

I have viewed a number of photos purporting to be of aircraft spraying the chemical or biological material into the atmosphere. I have also discussed these letters with another scientist familiar with upper atmospheric phenomena from Sandia National Laboratory and a retired general and fighter pilot who is an Air Force Hall of Fame Member. . . . In summary, there is no evidence that these “chemtrails” are other than expected, normal contrails from jet aircraft that vary in their shapes, duration, and general presentation based on prevailing weather conditions. That is not to say that there could not be an occasional, purposeful experimental release of, say, high altitude barium for standard wind tracking experiments. There could also be other related experiments that occur from time-to-time which release agents into the atmosphere. However, not one single picture that was presented as evidence indicates other than normal contrail formation. . . .

“Chemtrails” are said to last much longer than normal contrails from before 1995, but proponents are curiously oblivious of photographs of long-lasting contrails from as far back as World War II. The supposedly ominous “grid patterns” of contrails are easily explained as the expected effect of wind movement across frequently used east/west and north/south aircraft travel lanes. And one of the defining characteristics of “chemtrails”—gaps in the trails, supposedly caused by turning the “sprayers” on and off—is quite simply explained as normal humidity variations in the atmosphere. The sky often displays varying levels of humidity with spotty clouds, and the same conditions apply to the clouds condensing from jet trails. And, as far as attacking the populace with biotoxins, what dispersal vehicle could be less effective than a craft spraying indiscriminately at 35,000 feet? A low-altitude crop duster or a land truck spraying for mosquitoes would be far better at such a task.

One of the most strident promoters of “chemtrails” is Santa Fe’s Clifford Carni­com, who maintains the “Aerosol Operation Crimes and Cover-Up” Web site (Carni­com). His site is a frantic hodgepodge of pictures of alleged spray attacks, appeals to media and government officials to take the issue seriously, and detailed “analyses” of metals like barium in the “trails.” While Carnicom bemoans the fact that the media won’t give him his due, he turned down a 1999 invitation to speak to NMSR, which could have attracted some of the media attention he was demanding so shrilly. Incensed that NMSR had published a joke linking “chemtrails” to the threat of “Dihydrogen Monoxide” (i.e., H2O), Carn­icom refused to even acknowledge the invitation. Anyone who doesn’t buy into the conspiracy theory is treated as an active member of that conspiracy. Conversely, anyone who signs on to “chemtrails” is em­braced as a fellow traveler, no matter what their other beliefs. And so, Carnicom has formed a mutual admiration society with “Naturopathic Doctor” Gwen Scott, who writes on Carnicom’s site,

My interest is, primarily, finding natural medicines that can help ALL people mitigate the devastating effects of a multi-leveled assault on human health. Mr. Carni­com has provided immeasurable help in identifying contents so that I may design some natural medicine protocols around them . . . it is important that you understand one of the founding principles of natural medicine . . . Herring’s Law of Cure. This law presents that your body will rid itself of anything unwanted (diseases, etc.) from top to bottom, from the inside to the outside, and in the reverse order in which it entered your system. As you will see, much of the work on my own body follows this law exactly. . . . (Scott 2008)

(Whew! I’m glad she cleared that up for us!)

Since NMSR hosts some skeptical articles on chemtrails (Thomas), I often get e-mails from angered readers. One person demanded that I watch a YouTube video of a November 9, 2007, “Chemtrails” report by Louisiana station KSLA, in which investigative reporter Jeff Ferrell discussed tests the station had conducted on supposed “chemtrail residue” collected in a bowl by a farmer outside his house. Ferrell said, “KSLA News 12 had the sample tested at a lab. The results: A high level of barium, 6.8 parts per million, (ppm). That’s more than three times the toxic level set by the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA.” I had to inform my angry correspondent of a problem—the actual video clearly shows 68.8 µg/L (micrograms per liter), or equivalently, 68.8 ppb (parts per billion). The reporter overestimated by a factor of one hundred, because he read the “68.8” as “6.8,” and also confused million with billion. The measured levels were far less than EPA limits. When I asked my correspondent why I should be convinced by such poor reporting, he just repeated his insistence that I take down my “stupid website.”

I’ve also been e-mailed photographs of the interior of planes filled with large containers connected by tubes, accompanied by the exclamation that “This is the spraying equipment!” But these photographs turned out to be pictures of ballast tanks used in flight testing of new airliner designs; the tubes simply allow water to be pumped from tank to tank, simulating passenger motion in the cabin for the aircraft test. Kennedy assassination and 9/11 conspiracy theorists are mere pikers compared to “chemtrail” buffs. You will rarely find a more virulently self-deluded group, anywhere.


Dave Thomas

Dave Thomas, a physicist and mathematician, is president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is currently a scientist/programmer at IRIS/PASSCAL in Socorro, New Mexico, and also teaches classes in physics, psychology, and critical thinking at New Mexico Tech.

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