A new study has found that planes flying through certain kinds of clouds can seed ice crystals and create additional snowfall.
LOS ANGELES — A new study has found that planes flying through certain kinds of clouds can seed ice crystals and create additional snowfall.
The extra snowfall is associated with odd-looking gashes and gaping holes seen in certain clouds — “hole-punch” and “canal” clouds — formed by planes flying through them.
The conditions for this inadvertent weather modification occur about 5 percent of the time — but 10 to 15 percent in winter — said Andrew Heymsfield of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., lead author of the study in the new issue of the journal Science.
Aircraft take off into the wind, he noted, so if they are generating extra ice particles upwind of an airport, the result can be snow on the airport.
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The team was investigating holes or canals that are sometimes seen drilled in clouds after an airplane has passed through. Studying six airports, including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, they found that increased snow and rainfall occur where the unusual cloud holes appear, usually within 60 miles of the airport.
Scientists had known passing aircraft can generate ice crystals in clouds, but until recently they hadn’t associated that with the mysterious holes, Heymsfield said.
Some scientists said they doubted the airplane-induced snow would amount to much.
Art Rangno, a retired flight scientist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study, said the work reminded him of a colleague’s remark during a cloud-seeding experiment: any additional rainfall created would be “enough to fill a ladybug’s teacup.”
“I think that could be the case here,” Rangno said.