There are Three Types of Contrails

At high altitudes, if there is enough moisture in the air, a contrail will form behind an airplane. There are three types of contrails: short-lived, persistent non-spreading, and persistent spreading.

Short-lived Contrails:

If the air is somewhat moist, a contrail will form right behind the airplane and make a bright white line that lasts for a short while.

Image courtesy of Carol Clark

Persistent Non-Spreading Contrails:

If the air is very moist, a contrail will form behind an airplane and stay in the sky for long time. This type of contrail will stay in the sky long after the airplane has flown out of sight. It can last for a few minutes or longer than a day, and it keeps its shape of a thin line.

Image courtesy of Kirsten Meymaris

Persistent Spreading Contrails:

These contrails form when a persistent contrail spreads out. They grow wider and fuzzier as time passes. Sometimes contrails will actually take on the characteristics of a natural cirrus cloud and no longer look like contrails, so they become human-made clouds.

Image courtesy of Peggy LeMone

Back to Contrails


Cloud Image Gallery

Last modified June 6, 2008 by Becca Hatheway.

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more


The white streaks you see coming off high-flying jet airplanes are called contrails, which is short for condensation trail. Contrails are clouds that formed when water vapor condenses and freezes around...more


Altocumulus clouds are part of the Middle Cloud group (2000-7000m up). They are grayish-white with one part of the cloud darker than the other. Altocumulus clouds usually form in groups and are about...more


Altostratus belong to the Middle Cloud group (2000-7000m up). An altostratus cloud usually covers the whole sky and has a gray or blue-gray appearance. The sun or moon may shine through an altostratus...more


Cirrocumulus clouds belong to the High Cloud group (5000-13000m). They are small rounded puffs that usually appear in long rows. Cirrocumulus are usually white, but sometimes appear gray. Cirrocumulus...more


Cirrostratus clouds belong to the High Cloud (5000-13000m) group. They are sheetlike thin clouds that usually cover the entire sky. The sun or moon can shine through cirrostratus clouds . Sometimes, the...more


Cirrus clouds are the most common of the High Cloud (5000-13000m) group. They are composed entirely of ice and consist of long, thin, wispy streamers. They are commonly known as "mare's tails" because...more


Cumulonimbus clouds belong to the Clouds with Vertical Growth group. They are generally known as thunderstorm clouds. A cumulonimbus cloud can grow up to 10km high. At this height, high winds will flatten...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA