In a collaborative effort, Google, American Airlines, and Breakthrough Energy have leveraged the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to significantly reduce contrails. Spearheaded by Google Research, this joint initiative explored AI’s potential in minimising the climate impact of flights by evading routes prone to contrail formation.
Over a span of six months, American Airlines operated more than 70 experimental flights. The flight teams utilised AI predictions from Google, which were juxtaposed with Breakthrough Energy’s open-source contrail simulations, helping the crews sidestep altitudes with higher contrail formation chances.
Post these experimental flights, an analysis of satellite imagery confirmed a substantial 54% reduction in contrails. This groundbreaking research showcases the tangible potential of commercial flights in mitigating contrails and, by extension, their environmental footprint.
However, this contrail reduction came at the expense of a minor increase in fuel consumption by about 2%. Google referenced a study indicating that only a minor adjustment in flights can negate most contrail-induced warming, leading to a net increase in fuel consumption by just 0.3%.
Google further noted that, with their current predictions, large-scale contrail avoidance could be achieved at an approximate cost of $5-25 per ton of CO2 equivalent, positioning it as an efficient and economical solution. They also expect further enhancements in the future.
Contrails emerge when planes traverse humid air, leading to the formation of cirrus clouds that can persist from mere minutes to hours, based on atmospheric conditions. While these clouds do reflect some sunlight, they predominantly trap vast amounts of heat, culminating in an overall warming effect.
Google emphasised the significance of discerning flight paths that induce contrails to minimise global warming. They also highlighted a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), stating the warming effects of contrails are nearly half as potent as those from jet fuel.