Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss., 9, 11589-11658, 2009
© Author(s) 2009. This work is distributed
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This discussion paper has been under review for the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (ACP). Please refer to the corresponding final paper in ACP.
Factors controlling contrail cirrus optical depth
B. Kärcher1, U. Burkhardt1, S. Unterstrasser1, and P. Minnis2
1Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), Institut für Physik der Atmosphäre, Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany
2National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA, USA

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 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. Typical simulated mean optical depths at a wavelength of 0.55 μm are in the range 0.2–0.3. A substantial fraction 20–40% of contrail cirrus stay subvisible (optical depth <0.02). A detailed analysis suggests that previous satellite measurements of line-shaped persistent contrails have missed about 86% (35%) of contrails with optical depth ≤0.05 (0.05–0.1), amounting to almost 50% of contrails 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.

Citation: Kärcher, B., Burkhardt, U., Unterstrasser, S., and Minnis, P.: Factors controlling contrail cirrus optical depth, Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss., 9, 11589-11658, doi:10.5194/acpd-9-11589-2009, 2009.
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