Filmmaker George Barnes first grew suspicious after he left his camera on all day to create a time-lapse effect for a car commercial. The sky, he noticed, had turned entirely white. When he played back his tape, he saw jets flying in a grid pattern across the New Jersey sky. He asked a fellow producer to look into it, resulting in a packet of information with terms like "chemtrails" and "geoengineering."
And from there, to Barnes, the conclusion was inescapable: His tape was evidence of a broad, high-level conspiracy to use airplanes to spray chemicals into the Earth's atmosphere and alter its climate—a desperate, secret, and misguided attempt to fight global warming.
Barnes has since dedicated his life to raising awareness of chemtrails and pushing those in power to acknowledge them. Since his New Jersey discovery more than two years ago, he's rolled out a documentary film with a Baldwin brother, a petition with the former speaker of the Florida House, and an app that could change the way citizens get in touch with Congress.
The chemtrails conspiracy isn't a new one, but it has taken off in recent years. It's part of the premise behind the summer movie Snowpiercer, in which humans geoengineer the Earth until it completely froze over. (In the opening credits, a shot of airplane contrails is heralded with an ominous blast of brass, kicking off a story in which post-chemtrail-apocalypse humanity is confined to a single class-stratified train that circumnavigates the globe.)
Geoengineering—a catchall term for intentional, large-scale human actions aimed at combating climate change—is real, at least as a studied theory. The National Research Council will release a report on the topic next week, while academics and the United Nations have acknowledged it as a hypothetical—but far off—option to combat global warming.
The chemtrail conspiracy, however, is concerned about something that's as fictional as Snowpiercer. Regular airplane contrails can linger for hours, based on the moisture content of the air, and that's been the case for as long as there has been air travel. Grid patterns are just the result of airplanes flying on predetermined paths. And given the number of people who would be needed to pull off such a stunt, it's extremely unlikely that it's going on—and being kept secret.
But does not deter the believers, to whom denials amount to nothing more than catnip. They're trying to bring the issue to people in power, from local government to the halls of Congress, to try to stop what they see as a fatal experiment.
"Short of a nuclear cataclysm, there's no more greater or immediate threat to all of us than climate engineering," said Dane Wigington, lead researcher at the chemtrails tracking site GeoEngineering Watch. "Just speaking statistically and mathematically."
It's tempting to write off Barnes as a run-of-the-mill conspiracy theorist, his quest has produced an interesting side benefit: a tool that could make it easier for activists of all stripes to command their elected officials' attention.
Barnes created the Skyder Alert app, which combines photo and geolocation technology to make it easy for everyday Twitter users to communicate with their elected officials. Through the app, users snap pictures of "suspicious" contrails and can then—via the locator portion of the app—tweet them directly at the House representatives, senators, and governor who represent the spot where the user is standing, along with a prewritten petition with the hashtag #CivilRightsViolation.
The geolocation feature, which allows citizens to quickly contact a district's officials even if they don't already know who those officials are, was a creation of Barnes's and appears to be unique. It also opens a host of possibilities: Imagine being able to quickly tweet photos of uncollected trash or of potholes to your local alderman, or images of a people benefiting from a federal program that local officials favor cutting.
"It's a brilliant concept for an entry-level citizen to get engaged," said Steven Polunsky, a research scientist at Texas A&M University who also worked on technology for the Texas state Senate. "For someone who doesn't contact their government regularly, it's going to start with this kind of single-issue motivator that gets them out of their chair."
And, because many elected officials run their own Twitter accounts personally, Barnes says it's a chance to make direct contact in a way one couldn't through traditional media.
"You always hear stuff like 'contact your congressman, call this number,' and it's something nobody ever does," said Barnes. "So I'm thinking, what's the easiest way to do it? How can we get the most amount of people to contact Congress from their own information?"
Barnes, then new to coding, wrote the app himself with the help of a team of more-experienced programmers, manually inputting the boundaries of congressional districts.
But is it working to bring attention to the "chemtrails conspiracy"? National Journal contacted congressional offices that had been pinged with SkyderAlert notices. Multiple offices acknowledged seeing the tweets, some with a chuckle, but hadn't responded to them.
Sen. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, responded last year to a constituent inquiry on chemtrails with a letter that discussed his own work on chemical-safety reform. New Jersey Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen also responded to a request about "the ongoing Stratospheric Aerosol GeoEngineering, Solar, Radiation Management programs" with a promise to meet with staff, although there does not appear to be any followup.
For Barnes, the app is one part of an attempt to lend more legitimacy to a movement that has its fair share of off-kilter behavior. The chemtrails conspiracy may be best known for its extreme believers, such as a woman who filmed herself yelling at the sky and spraying vinegar to clear contrails. Or a line of parody songs from YouTube user Michael Fleming, including "Smells Like Chemtrail Spirit," "Satan Claws Is Sprayin' Your Town," and "Under the Chembow" ("Somewhere under the chembow / children die / There's a land that's been gassed with / sulfur dioxide").
But with big data, the hope is to lend some credence to the arguments and raise the issue at the top. Skyder Alert compiles pictures of suspicious contrails on a map, an effort that Barnes said has paid off. In the days before a massive storm dumped 6 feet of snow on Buffalo in November, Barnes said his map showed a rash of unusual contrails (meteorologists said the storm was an escalated lake-effect snow).
Geoengineering Watch has pointed to a whole slew of negative effects resulting from "weather warfare," from UV radiation killing trees to clusters of cancer cases that it links to aluminum being sprayed on unsuspecting citizens. Even California's drought and the warming oceans have been linked to chemtrails.
So supporters are pushing to raise the issue with anyone they think can answer their questions. Skyder Alert joined the People's Climate March outside of a U.N. meeting in September amid established green groups. Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward convened a two-hour meeting this spring in response to activists' concerns about chemtrails, where dozens of citizens slammed the government's secret experiments and raised alarms about being poisoned. The board of supervisors in Shasta County in Northern California even voted this summer to research chemtrails after a three-hour meeting that local media said was the best attended by citizens.
Barnes has also been promoting his film Look Up! about chemtrails, which features narration from William Baldwin (the one from Backdraft). Under a deal with a theater distribution service, it's hitting cinemas, and people can petition local theaters to hold screenings. The movie includes repeated clips of Holdren talking about geoengineering and interviews with Foster Gamble, a descendant of the founder of Procter & Gamble, who has founded the Thrive Movement to assist "humanity in thriving through the evolutionary challenges threatening our survival."
The movement has even drawn some academic attention. A November study in The Geographic Journal looked at the chemtrails movement as part of a broader social shift on climate change and geoengineering, drawing a line between the "paranoid" and "normal" views. "Certain elements of the discourse (such as the moral outrage at the idea of powerful elites controlling the climate, or the importance of emotional and spiritual connections to weather and climate) highlight concerns of relevance to mainstream geoengineering debates," wrote author Rose Cairns of the University of Sussex.
The debate over geoengineering is heating up, although with no real work being done. A section of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report discusses its possibilities, but notes a lack of evidence, and a recent Newsweek cover examined its potential. The pending National Research Council report will examine a "limited number of potential" geoengineering techniques.
White House science adviser John Holdren said in a 2009 interview that geoengineering ought to be on the table to combat global warming, although he later clarified that it was not under consideration by the administration.
As with many conspiracy theories, attempts to dispel believers' accusations are immediately converted into evidence those accusations are true.
Tom Gustafson, a former Florida House speaker who offered technical assistance to Barnes and was interviewed in Look Up!, said the denials demonstrate the secrecy of those behind the chemtrails effort.
"The secrecy around this is a symptom of the problem," said Gustafson. "The problem here is a lack of honesty in what they know. We want the citizens who have to react, be able to react. I suspect that people might panic "¦ but that doesn't get addressed by keeping it quiet."