Art and Science / Space / Technology

Contrails

To most people today, those who make their way to the back rather than the front of an aircraft, the idea of jet travel as alluring, glamorous and sophisticated probably seems like just another of the lost dreams of the twentieth century. Yet still it’s hard not to be moved by the sight of an airliner high overhead against a blue sky, contrails streaming behind it like threads, and to imagine where people are heading and what takes them there. It’s even harder to avoid the terror and wonder that comes from the fundamentally unnatural fact of being five miles up at 600mph.

Westbound jet plane over Aberdeenshire, December 2014.

Westbound jet plane over Aberdeenshire, December 2014.

What’s sometimes easy to forget is the sheer volume of air traffic circulating above us. Indeed, it’s only really in their rare moments of absence (when the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 closed European air space, for example) that we realise the extent to which jets and contrails form part of our everyday sonic and visual environment. Last November, NATS, the UK’s air traffic controller, published a short, animated video depicting a typical day in UK airspace.

By drawing out the constant flow of aircraft around and across the UK, and the density of traffic at the nation’s key airports, the visualisation is strikingly successful in manifesting airspace as what the final caption calls the ‘invisible infrastructure’ of the UK. This is undoubtedly the video’s chief aim for NATS, concerned as it is to remind us of the vital role it plays in sustaining the UK’s economy (and, as a part-privatised company since 2001, of its success as a ‘global leader in innovative air traffic solutions and airport performance’).

But the video is bewitching for many other reasons. First there is the eye-catching colour palette of blues, the tinge of light blue on the western edge of the globe shading into the dominant, midnight blue of the oceans. Scurrying across this backdrop are ice-blue streaks of light, each representing a jet plane as it homes in on the UK. Time compression turns a day’s aircraft movements into just over two minutes of frantic circulation, which begins with parallel lines of transatlantic flights sweeping in from the across the Atlantic at the start of the day, and continues with a swirl of domestic, European and long-haul arrivals.

Data visualisation by NATS showing air traffic movements across the UK and the North Atlantic. Credit: NATS Press Office

The ice-blue streaks of light converge, cross and knit themselves together to articulate a web of connections and nodal points spelling out the transcontinental connectedness of the contemporary age; or, in these ebola-haunted times, the speed with which people and their related baggage (including all manner of bacterial and viral infections) can change continents. Their swirling, pulsing traces also make them look curiously like bursts of data or electrical energy, as if the aircraft circulating across the planet were speeding along the neural pathways of humanity’s collective brain.

At the same time, there is a frenzied edge to the way in which they dart and move, as if the machine they power is being pushed to the very limit of its capacity. It’s here that the NATS animation might appear to have a quality more elegiac than celebratory. The means by which it renders the startling density of air traffic movement is also an unnerving reminder of the extent to which human beings have taken over the planet’s ecosystem, and of the unavoidable fact that, at some point in time, the day will come when there is no more kerosene left to burn.

Data visualisation from NATS showing helicopter flights from Aberdeen airport to North Sea oil platforms. Credit: NATS Press Office

Data visualisation from NATS showing helicopter flights from Aberdeen airport to North Sea oil platforms.
Credit: NATS Press Office

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