Mason hosts workshop for researchers addressing global warming from aircraft clouds

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More than 220 researchers from three continents participated in a virtual workshop hosted by George Mason University and NASA Langley Research Center on Wednesday September 7, 2022.  

The workshop was the first time that airlines, air traffic controllers, climate scientists, aircraft and jet engine engineers, and policymakers gathered to share the science and understand the practical operational constraints for contrail mitigation. George Mason University was the natural host of the meeting given its previous work and its reputation in the field.  

The workshop aimed to foster information exchange and discuss opportunities to address the global warming from clouds generated by aircraft. Lance Sherry, associate professor of system engineering, leads an inter-disciplinary team of researchers and students at George Mason who conduct pioneering research in this area.  

“Contrails are the thin white clouds you see trailing behind aircraft,” explains Mason PhD student Amy Tal Rose. “Water and soot emitted from jet engines form ice crystals at high altitudes that lead to the formation of high clouds. These ice-clouds are like a blanket that traps ‘thermal radiation’ emitted by the Earth and leads to global heating.” 

“The thing that surprised me most about the global heating effect of contrails,” says Brian Romero Lopez a system engineering student working on the research team, “is that contrails account for two percent of the total human made global heating. Green-house gases account for 98 percent of global warming, and contrails make up the remaining two percent. No one talks about this.” 

“Mitigating the effects of contrails is considered a Wicked Problem,” explained co-host of the workshop, Chief Technologist for Future Airspace Operations at NASA Andy Lacher. “There are multiple stakeholders with complex interactions that require delicate tradeoffs. The science and practical operational constraints must be fully understood before any mitigation steps can be taken.” 

“The time to act is now!” said Ulrich Schumann, from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the German Aerospace Center at the workshop. A sentiment echoed by other participants in attendance. 

 “Wicked Problems are the bailiwick of System Engineering,” adds System Engineering Department Chair John Shortle. “The complex climate related opportunities cannot be solved by politicians or economists alone. It requires system engineers to fully understand the science and the needs of all the stakeholders involved. Sherry and the team have been applying the latest sophisticated System Engineering methods and techniques to these climate opportunities.” 

Sherry and Lacher are optimistic that the workshop will be the first of a series of workshops that will lead to a roadmap of evidence-based activities to take this opportunity to contribute to reduce global warming. 

“The time to act is now!” said Ulrich Schumann, from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the German Aerospace Center at the workshop. A sentiment echoed by others who attended the conference. 

For more information on System Engineering and climate adaptation research contact John Shortle, chair of the Systems Engineering & Operations Research Department.