Articles | Volume 9, issue 16
31 Aug 2009
 | 31 Aug 2009

Factors controlling contrail cirrus optical depth

B. Kärcher, U. Burkhardt, S. Unterstrasser, and P. Minnis

Abstract. Aircraft contrails develop into contrail cirrus by depositional growth and sedimentation of ice particles and horizontal spreading due to wind shear. Factors controlling this development include temperature, ice supersaturation, thickness of ice-supersaturated layers, and vertical gradients in the horizontal wind field. An analytical microphysical cloud model is presented and validated that captures these processes. Many individual contrail cirrus are simulated that develop differently owing to the variability in the controlling factors, resulting in large samples of cloud properties that are statistically analyzed. Contrail cirrus development is studied over the first four hours past formation, similar to the ages of line-shaped contrails that were tracked in satellite imagery on regional scales. On these time scales, contrail cirrus optical depth and microphysical variables exhibit a marked variability, expressed in terms of broad and skewed probability distribution functions. Simulated mean optical depths at a wavelength of 0.55 μm range from 0.05-0.5 and a substantial fraction 20-50% of contrail cirrus stay subvisible (optical depth <0.02), depending on meteorological conditions.

A detailed analysis based on an observational case study over the continental USA suggests that previous satellite measurements of line-shaped persistent contrails have missed about 89%, 50%, and 11% of contrails with optical depths 0-0.05, 0.05-0.1, and 0.1-0.2, respectively, amounting to 65% of contrail coverage of all optical depths. When comparing observations with simulations and when estimating the contrail cirrus climate impact, not only mean values but also the variability in optical depth and microphysical properties need to be considered.

Final-revised paper