Conspiracy theorists read
between lines in the sky
By Traci Watson
A new conspiracy theory sweeping the
Internet and radio talk shows has set parts of the federal
government on edge.
The theory: The white lines of condensed water vapor that
jets leave in the sky, called contrails, are actually a toxic
substance the government deliberately sprays on an
Federal bureaucracies have gotten thousands of phone calls,
e-mails and letters in recent years from people demanding to
know what is being sprayed and why. Some of the missives are
It's impossible to tell how many supporters these ideas
have attracted, but the people who believe them say they're
tired of getting the brush-off from officials. And they're
tired of health problems they blame on ''spraying.''
''This is blatant. This is in your face,'' says Philip
Marie Sr., a retired nuclear quality engineer from Bartlett,
N.H., who says the sky above his quiet town is often
crisscrossed with ''spray'' trails.
''No one will address it,'' he says. ''Everyone stonewalls
The situation Marie and others describe is straight out of
The X-Files. He and others report one day looking up at
the sky and realizing that they were seeing abnormal
contrails: contrails that lingered and spread into wispy
clouds, multiple contrails arranged in tick-tack-toe-like
grids or parallel lines, contrails being laid down by white
planes without registration numbers.
Believers call these tracks ''chemtrails.'' They say they
don't know why the chemicals are being dropped, but that
doesn't stop them from speculating. Many guess that the
federal government is trying to slow global warming with
compounds that reflect sunlight into the sky. Some propose
more ominous theories, such as a government campaign to weed
out the old and sick.
Exasperated by persistent questions, the Environmental
Protection Agency, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration
and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration joined
forces last fall to publish a fact sheet explaining the
science of contrail formation. A few months earlier, the Air
Force had put out its own fact sheet, which tries to refute
its opponents' arguments point by point.
''If you try to pin these people down and refute things,
it's, 'Well, you're just part of the conspiracy,' '' says
atmospheric scientist Patrick Minnis of NASA's Langley
Research Center in Hampton, Va. ''Logic is not exactly a real
selling point for most of them.''
Nothing is ''out there'' except water vapor and ice
crystals, say irritated scientists who study contrails. Some,
such as Minnis, are outraged enough by the claims of chemtrail
believers that they have trolled Internet chat rooms to
correct misinformation or have gotten into arguments with
''Conspiracy nonsense,'' snorts Kenneth Sassen, an
atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah. ''These
things are at 30,000 to 40,000 feet in the atmosphere. They're
tiny particles. They're not going to affect anyone.''
The cloud-forming contrails that conspiracy theorists find
so ominous are ''perfectly natural,'' Minnis says. The odd
grid and parallel-line patterns are easily explained as
contrails blown together by the wind, scientists say.