In the nebulous depths of the internet, there exists a plethora of absurd theories. Ranging from the more conventional “flat earth” thesis, to the more occult postulates of the lost kingdom of Tartaria, digital fringe groups never fail to spark curiosity. In this nimbus of information, the social media algorithm has blessed me with another of these preposterous beliefs – the chemtrails conspiracy theory.
Although varied in claims, the core belief of chemtrails conspiracy theorists is that the government is engaged in a large-scale geoengineering program (a manipulation of natural climate systems). Planes and other aircraft are being used to release vast quantities of chemicals, heavy metals, and even microorganisms into the atmosphere in order to control the weather. Alongside questionable soil and air samples, their main evidence for this belief is the fluffy white plane contrails one often sees in the sky, which they perceive as proof of the government’s geoengineering capers.
Despite recently spiking in popularity, the chemtrails conspiracy theory finds its genesis in the mid-1990s, when a group of military researchers published the paper “Weather force as a Multiplier”. The paper was purely speculative, and hypothesised about the use of geoengineering as a military tactic. Nonetheless, it was adequately sufficient to raise suspicions in the minds of fringe journalists and the general population. From this moment, and further scientific developments in the realm of geoengineering, the theory gained traction. Online communities such as geoengineeringwatch.org acted as echo chambers for these fringe views, which (thanks to social media) are now being spread across Instagram and Facebook.
The reasons for this sinister meteorological modification are varied. Some believe that these particles are dispersed in order to reflect sunlight and therefore reduce global warming. Others believe the chemicals are there to make us compliant and controllable, and that we are secretly being poisoned. Others believe that these particles artificially increase rainfall, by providing a base for raindrops to form, in a process called “cloud seeding”.
It is this third and final belief which contributes to the conspiracy’s recent popularity in Australian fringe groups. Following the torrent of rain faced in Queensland and New South Wales in the early months of 2022, conspiracy theorists claimed that this downpour was a result of a large-scale governmental “cloud seeding” operation. Conspiracy theorist Robert Deutsch, from the Youtube channel Messages from the Underground, went so far as to call this an act of “weather warfare on the peaceful people of Australia”.
Unsurprisingly, these claims are unfounded. Although cloud seeding is a real meteorological tool that has been used to increase winter snowfalls since the 1940s, there is no evidence it could be used on such a large scale. Furthermore, there is little evidence that even if employed, it could affect atmospheric conditions so significantly. Michael Manton, emeritus professor at Monash’s School of Earth Atmosphere and Environment said to AAP FactCheck that “these storms are acting on much larger scales than any cloud seeding activity”. Instead, the Bureau of Meteorology attributes these extreme weather events to the La Niña weather system. This weather pattern pushes warm water westward, increasing the likelihood of rainfall and cyclones in Australia.
Other claims by chemtrails conspiracy theorists are similarly without basis. The “chemtrails”, which they allege to come from planes, is in reality just water vapour. A 2016 study by the University of California Irvine and the Carnegie Institute for Science surveyed 77 leading atmospheric scientists, whereby 76 reported no evidence of secret large-scale geoengineering. The one scientist in dissent did so on the basis of finding unusually high levels of atmospheric barium in an area with low barium levels in the soil. Although an unusual result, it remains insufficient to prove the existence of large scale weather modification. The conspiracy theorists of the internet may not agree, but it seems the whole concept is nothing more than that: a conspiracy.