Mat-Su

A ‘unique atmospheric sight’ that streaked across the sky over Palmer draws speculation, and a simple explanation

Contrails

When Mattias Ahlvin walked out of his house in Palmer to start his car Thursday morning, he saw something unusual in the sky.

“I looked up and I saw this strange — I mean, I would just call it a smoke column. It was a dark, gray streak across the sky that was going straight vertical,” he said.

Ahlvin pulled out his phone, zoomed in, and snapped a few photos of what he saw. His first thought was that it was a plane, but what surprised him was the direction the streak or plane seemed to be headed.

“It looked like it was going straight down,” he said.

Law enforcement and a meteorologist with the National Weather Service say that what Ahlvin saw was likely a condensation trail from an airplane that was illuminated by the rising sun.

Ahlvin reached out to Alaska State Troopers to share the images of what he saw just in case it was an aircraft in distress, and his wife, Elisabeth, posted the photos to a local Facebook page asking if anyone knew what it was.

Others posted similar photos and speculated whether they were looking at a rocket launch, a meteor, a plane crash, a volcano or perhaps a military operation.

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A few hours later, troopers publicly addressed their investigation into the sighting.

“Troopers believe that the photos and videos showed a contrail from the commercial jet combined with the rising sun which together caused the unique atmospheric sight. We greatly appreciate the numerous Alaskans that reported the suspicious sight this morning to law enforcement,” they wrote in an online advisory.

Contrails

A commercial jet had apparently been flying in the area around the time the photos were taken, troopers said — and that plane was reporting normal flight operations en route to New York.

“A rescue team on a helicopter flew a mission around the Lazy Mountain area this morning and located nothing suspicious and there were no signs of crashed aircraft,” troopers wrote.

Eddie Zingone, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage, said that the troopers’ explanation tracks with what he knows about condensation trails — also known as contrails, which are clouds of water vapor produced by aircraft traveling at high altitudes.

“First of all, how thick it is on one side — the bottom left part is much thicker, which is what we’d expect,” he said.

There was also a lot of moisture in the atmosphere on Thursday morning, which can lead to condensation trails developing, Zingone said.

Looking at the photos, it looks like the plane may have just gone through a cloud, and then was “really, really accentuated in the rising sun,” which could also help explain the phenomenon, he added.

“It was just a very vivid contrail is the best that we can guess on that,” he said.

[Above: A YouTube video shows an example of an unusual-looking condensation trail created by an airplane.]

Ahlvin said he thought the troopers’ explanation of what happened made sense — and that after dozens of social media comments on the photos he’d taken, it was reassuring to hear an answer from an official source.

“They say that the the easiest explanation is usually the correct one,” he said. “But it’s always hard on social media to know what’s true. And so I appreciate the troopers putting up a statement clarifying and confirming for sure.”

Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.

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