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Atlantic ship tracks

09 February 2018

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The Copernicus Sentinel-3A satellite takes us over the Atlantic Ocean close to Spain and Portugal in this image from 16 January 2018, where the sky not only features clouds but also criss-cross tracks from maritime vessels.

The familiar condensation trails – or contrails – we see in the sky usually come from aircraft, so it might seem strange that ships can also occasionally leave their mark in the sky. This rarely seen maritime twist on aircraft contrails was captured by Sentinel-3A. Known as ship tracks, these narrow cloud streaks form when water vapour condenses around small particles that ships emit in their exhaust fumes. They typically form when low-lying stratus and cumulus clouds are present and when the air surrounding the ship is calm.

As the image shows, several shipping lanes intersect off the coast of Spain and Portugal. Although the Strait of Gibraltar is a busy shipping lane, with numerous ships travelling in and out of the Mediterranean Sea, there are no ship tracks visible here in the image. Most tracks are several hundreds of kilometres off shore

Atlantic ship tracks

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Discover more about our planet with the Earth from Space video programme. Join ESA every Friday at 10:00 CEST for an 800 km-high tour with spectacular images from Earth-observing satellites.

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The Earth Watching project is an ESA/ESRIN service to help local authorities and to promote the benefits of remote sensing data during emergencies, sending images and articles to newspapers, magazines and TV stations.

The Earth Watching website features not only imagery of natural disasters, but also promotes various satellite remote sensing applications through images and articles. Some examples are shown in the special events part of the website.

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