Round-the-World Trip to Map Air Quality Takes Off

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Once upon a time a trip around the world made major headlines. Now it is a commonplace and a convenient way to measure air quality around the world by plane. A plane outfitted to measure greenhouse gases has taken off from Colorado on the first leg of a 24 day mission that will take it back and forth across the Pacific Ocean from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

The mission is part of a three year project designed to determine when and where the gases enter and leave the atmosphere. That in turn could help policymakers as well as scientists on how to handle and measure climate change.

The scientific questions that this study is focused on are (1) understanding the global sources and sinks for CO2, CH4, and other carbon cycle gases, and more broadly (2) determining large scale rates of tracer transport in the atmosphere. In other words what are the seasonal ups and downs of these gases and where do they increase (sources) and where do they decrease (sinks).

The largest known carbon dioxide sink is the ocean where about a quarter of the world supply of this gas is absorbed.  Sources are both biological (animal) and fossil fuels.

The three year campaign relies on the powerful capabilities of a specially equipped Gulfstream V aircraft. The jet, known as the High performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research (HIAPER), has a range of about 7,000 miles, which allows scientists to traverse large regions of the Pacific Ocean without refueling, gathering air samples along the way.

Researchers will take the jet from an altitude of 1,000 feet above Earth’s surface up to as high as 47,000 feet into the lower stratosphere. How carbon dioxide and methane gases vary by altitude will be determined.

Mapping air quality has been done before but not on a world level. For example NASA has funded maps on Carbon Dioxide air emissions are available of the US on a state by state level.

Satellites have also been used to get a general range of some pollutants such as Nitrogen Dioxide in the troposphere as measured by SCIAMACHY Envisat.

It can also measured with numerous ground based instruments and the data correlated and combined. This is done by EPA for Ozone and Hazardous Air Pollutants such as Benzene for evaluating regional air quality.

The present air borne study (the third of five) recently started from Anchorage, it will fly over the northern polar region, then to Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand and the southern polar region before retracing its path to Alaska and returning to Colorado in mid-April.

“Previous experiments only can do like one fixed station, and with the aircraft you can actually fly and do vertical profiles of the gases you are measuring,” said Vidal Salazar, project manager. “It’s the best and the latest.”

The missions are scheduled for different seasons to cover a range of conditions. Previous missions were in January and October 2009.

The plane carries a 10 person research team along with cameras and instruments attached to the underside of each wing.

Article by Andy Soos appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.

photo: I don’t have a DSLR, but…

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