"If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers."
— Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
Part I: Warriors for the Deep Blue Sky
Patrick Roddie films the sky every day. Two years ago, he rigged a camera on the roof of his apartment building in Lower Pacific Heights to record timelapses of the sun's dawn-to-dusk arc, along with the sky's usual bland traffic of birds, airplanes, and clouds.
Many of Roddie's timelapses — which he uploads to YouTube — capture something else, too: hazy, white threads that thicken in the wake of airplanes and sometimes tattoo the sky in grids. To the uninitiated, these are contrails, the harmless water vapor that commercial planes spume as they track across the sky at 30,000 feet. To Roddie and his followers, however, these are chemtrails, the toxic signature of a covert government program to slow global warming and control the weather.
Roddie knows this sounds like boilerplate conspiracy theory. "Don't trust me," he says. "Assume I'm full of crap. I'm just some Irish guy."
Roddie, who was born in Belfast, has the beard of a Confederate general and the doggedness of a street preacher. His day job is photographing portraits, mostly of weddings and children (he also has a Burning Man portfolio dating back to 1998), but his passion is cataloging and protesting "the global chemtrails program."
Roddie runs a website, Stop Spraying Us - SF, helps admin a Facebook group called California - Bay Area Residents Against Chemtrails/Geoengineering that has more than 2,000 members, manages a YouTube account that's 200 videos strong (with most view counts in the low hundreds), leads small monthly rallies at City Hall and the Ferry Building, and travels widely to speak out against chemtrails. Roddie estimates that over the course of his three-year chemtrails activism career he's burned and distributed more than 30,000 informational DVDs.
Last month, he raised $5,000 on GoFundMe to fly to Paris, where he presented a paper to climate scientists about the health effects of geoengineering. And this month, he addressed a public Environmental Protection Agency hearing in Washington about the dangers of aircraft pollution.
If you ask him the million-dollar question — Why are they spraying chemtrails? — his stock answer is: "Because they're assholes."
"They" could refer to several nefarious actors: the U.S. government, the military-industrial complex, renegade scientists, old-money foundations, the U.N., or, most sinister and enigmatic of all, the New World Order. "It's a huge program," Roddie says, adding that "it" probably encompasses every airline in the world.
A thumbnail sketch of the science behind chemtrails is difficult because there are competing theories about what that science entails. But most activists, including Roddie, agree that curbing global warming seems to be the purpose. In layman's terms, chemtrails are believed to be an aerosol that contains aluminum (which deflects sunlight), as well as a cocktail of other toxic elements such as barium and strontium. According to Roddie, this aerosol has insidious side effects, including Alzheimer's, autism, asthma, respiratory failure, pulmonary failure, and stroke.
Another major side effect: California's historic drought.
"It's like putting a Brawny towel over the sky," Roddie says. "Any time there's a storm approaching the California coast and you look on NASA's EOSDIS Worldview satellite, you can see a checkerboard of lines ahead of and on top of any storm coming in."
Mainstream scientists reject the "chemtrails conspiracy" — if they entertain it at all. Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institute for Science at Stanford University who studies climate change, is barraged with chemtrails inquiries so often that he created a pro forma response. "Please do not be one of these people with no scientific literacy and who believe stupid stuff they read on the Internet," reads a sample line.
"I feel sorry for these people because they have no real way of finding out the truth for themselves. They trust people who believe false things," Caldeira says.
R. John Hansman, Professor of Aeronautics & Astronautics at MIT, offers a no-nonsense definition of those lines in the sky: "[They] are primarily water and are due to condensation of the jet exhaust when the relative humidity is high in the upper atmosphere."
And the U.S. Air Force has also publicly denied the existence of a chemtrails program. In the early aughts, the agency's website featured a notice declaring, "The Air Force is not conducting any weather modification experiments or programs and has no plans to do so in the future. The 'chemtrail' hoax has been investigated and refuted by many established and accredited universities, scientific organizations, and major media publications."
Nonetheless, Roddie has attracted a following of devout chemtrails believers in the Bay Area. Fifty-three-year old Val Hall is one of them. A landscape gardener from Richmond, Hall first learned of chemtrails from a young man who'd joined her work crew at a job in Point Richmond in May 2006.
"While we were working, a jet put a persistent contrail all the way across the sky, and the kid showed me," Hall says. "I'd never seen a jet put a line like that all the way across the sky in my life. Some of my crewmembers looked at him and thought, 'This guy's crazy,' but I didn't think he was crazy."
The kid gave Hall a name for what she'd witnessed — chemtrails — and explained the various poisons strafing people in the Bay Area. Hall never saw the kid again after that day, but she began watching the sky closely, and in 2011 she went online to do her own research. That's when she found Roddie.
"I never wanted to be an activist in my life, but all of a sudden I had to be an activist," Hall says. She calls herself a "warrior for the deep blue sky," an allusion to her childhood in the Bay Area when the sky was a lush, cinematic blue instead of the "chalkboard" it is today. Hall now admins 15 different Facebook groups devoted to exposing chemtrails.