Steam and Mirrors

Written by Dr Klaus L.E. Kaiser

Hardly a day goes by without a news item about air pollution here or there, about the current “evil extraordinaire,” i.e. carbon dioxide (CO2), about “chemicals” of whatever description that may cause all kinds of unknown problems, and so forth. Nearly without fail, such media reports about CO2 are accompanied by pictures of “smokestacks.” More often than not, you are shown large (and even nuclear) power plant cooling towers with large volumes of white clouds belching out. Please, do have a closer look at such pictures and videos.

If the documentary evidence you are watching on the tube provides a large enough overview area, then you’ll notice that this white “pollution” quickly disappears in the air not far above their source, i.e. the top of the “smokestacks.” There is a simple reason for that: The white clouds you see rising from the towers, like in the picture below, are


steam 1


Scientifically speaking, smoke is comprised of small solid particles like soot together with finely dispersed droplets of liquids in the air that remain for a considerable time. For example, if you sit beside a campfire and the breeze blows the (true) smoke into your nostrils and eyes, you know it’s SMOKE! Smoke is definitely a form of air pollution that you don’t want to get into your eyes and lungs. Smoke does not dissolve in air but gets diluted to lower concentrations before it eventually settles on the ground. Therefore, you can see smoke well past its source for a long distance. For example, smoke rising from a large fire can be seen for many miles; just think of forest fires in California. Their smoke can rise high up in the atmosphere and even impede air traffic.

However, just because the term “smokestack” has been around for hundreds of years, it does not mean that anything you  actually see emanating from a “smokestack” is really smoke.


Most certainly, the white plumes rising from large cooling towers, such as shown in the picture above are not smoke but steam. The large plumes of steam above the towers rapidly evaporate to become invisible water vapor.

Surely, you would not call the steam rising from a pot of boiling water on your stove “pollution” either. Even photographs of pure steam clouds when taken against a bright background may appear to be nearly black, but that’s just the contrast between viewing the same cloud against the light source or in line with it. An example of that is shown below:  the center of the dense steam plume appears dark while the fringes reflect the light towards the viewer. Regrettably though, much of the media does not seem to understand that difference or is oblivious to the fact that this is

                ALSO STEAM:

steam 2

Many media reports also appear to insinuate that anything white (whether steam or true smoke) coming out of any tower shows carbon dioxide (CO2) or as some call it “carbon pollution.” Of course, that is nonsense as well, and frequently the cause of even more confusion and misinterpretation. Like steam, carbon dioxide is also not the same as smoke.

Carbon Dioxide

In fact, carbon dioxide (CO2), like water vapor, is an invisible gas. Even if there were any carbon dioxide in the plume of steam rising from the cooling towers in the picture above, our eyes would be unable to see it. The reason is simple:  CO2 is a colorless gas; the breath we exhale proves it. Our breath typically contains 40,000-50,000 ppm of CO2 or approximately 100 times its level in the air (400 ppm) but you cannot see it. When you can see your breath, it is because the air is already saturated with water vapor and the moisture in our breath condenses to mini-clouds.

So, next time you watch TV and see the news anchor or a politician talking about “carbon pollution” with associated pictures of plumes coming from “smokestacks,” just remember, it’s all “steam (not smoke) and mirrors.”  Vive la différence!


Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser is author of CONVENIENT MYTHS, the green revolution – perceptions, politics, and facts

Dr. Kaiser can be reached

Comments (3)

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    Excellent article

    Another trick that is used is taking a picture of these “smokestacks” against the backdrop of a setting sun, which makes the condensing water vapor look even more ominous. Here are a couple of examples:

    It is just one more piece of the propaganda war that we are under–the creation and maintenance of a public myth.

    Another piece of the propaganda is the “greenhouse effect in a bottle” “science” experiments that are being taught to school children, which demonstrates the fact that carbon dioxide has a lower specific heat than does air.

    Here is a video of an experiment created by NOAA:

    Here is a video even stokes the ego of the sixth graders by calling them [i]”scientists, scholars and climate change researchers”[/i] while having them do a bogus “climate change in a bottle” experiment:

    The unsettling thing about these videos is that the teachers doing these experiments seem to actually believe that they are teaching these students a scientific truth.


    • Avatar



      Carl, thanks for the links. I viewed each of these (and a few others). I am truly disgusted by what I have seen, and I left comments on each of those videos.

      Very sad indeed.

  • Avatar



    Why is it that not one politician will acknowledge the facts in this article?

    And why is it that such images are allowed to appear whenever the topic of climate change is covered, yet no qualification is made that it’s steam not CO2 or polluting smoke?

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