One of the major challenges in climate science is tracking the approximately 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted each year from motor vehicles, factories, deforestation, and other sources. About 40 percent of this invisible gas accumulates in the atmosphere, with the rest apparently being absorbed by oceans and ecosystems on land.
"This mission is providing us with amazing data about carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from all over the world," says Britton Stephens, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, NCAR, and one of the project's principal investigators. "This will lead to improved predictions about greenhouse gases and enable society to make better decisions about climate change."
The scientists fly in a specially equipped Gulfstream V aircraft, owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by NCAR.
The research jet, known as HIAPER, which stands for High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research, has a range of about 7,000 miles so the scientists can cover large sections of the Pacific Ocean without refueling.
Steven Wofsy, Harvard University scientist and HIPPO principal investigator with the HIAPER jet in the background. (Photo by Carlye Calvin ©UCAR)
Researchers 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, gathering air samples along the way.
Many of the instruments aboard HIAPER have been designed especially for the project. They will enable scientists to measure CO2 and other gases across the planet in real time, instead of collecting a limited number of samples in flasks and bringing them back to the lab for later analysis.
"Essentially, we have a flying laboratory that we're taking around the world, sucking in air and doing the measurements as we go," Stephens says.
The federally funded project, HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observations, usually called HIPPO, brings together scientists from organizations across the nation, including NCAR, Harvard University, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Miami, and Princeton University.
The scientists departed January 8 on the first of five missions. Their flights took them from Colorado to Alaska and the Arctic Circle, then south to New Zealand and Antarctica. Later this week, the jet will return from Easter Island to Colorado.
The four subsequent missions through mid-2011 will follow similar flight paths, but at different times of year, resulting in a range of seasonal snapshots of concentrations of greenhouse gases.
The research will help answer such questions as why atmospheric levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, have tripled since the Industrial Age and are on the rise again after leveling off in the 1990s.
Scientists will also analyze other gases and particles in the atmosphere that can affect temperatures by influencing clouds or the amount of solar heat that reaches Earth's surface.
"We're flying this wonderful plane all over the globe and taking a slice out of the atmosphere to see what's in it," says principal investigator Steven Wofsy of Harvard. "It's the first time we'll be able to see the whole globe all at once in great detail. This is giving us a completely new picture of how greenhouse gases are entering the atmosphere and being removed from it, both by natural processes and by humans."
"This is the first time that anyone has systematically tried to map the distribution of carbon dioxide and related gases from the Arctic to the Antarctic and from the surface to the upper atmosphere," says Ralph Keeling of Scripps, another principal investigator.
"Oceanographers have been doing similar mapping of the ocean for decades. But for the atmosphere, the approach is revolutionary. Each day we get a snapshot of another piece of the world," said Keeling. "We are assembling a global picture, flight by flight."
The research will help provide a baseline against which to evaluate the success of efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions and enhance natural CO2 uptake and storage.
This task is gaining urgency as the world negotiates a successor pact to the Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gases that is expected to be finalized in December.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.