Focus on Research: A bird’s-eye view — Researchers take to the skies to chart the flow of greenhouse gases

A view of NASA’s C-130 research aircraft that will be used on the ACT-America mission.
A view of NASA’s C-130 research aircraft that will be used on the ACT-America mission. Photo provided

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects being conducted at Penn State. Each column features the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

Kenneth Davis’ head has been in the clouds, and it’s hard to blame him.

The Penn State meteorology professor will take to the skies aboard an airplane that will help scientists better understand how greenhouse gases flow into the atmosphere.

Davis landed Penn State a lead role in a five-year, $30 million mission to improve our knowledge of carbon dioxide and methane sources — where the gases are produced, and sinks — where they are naturally stored by the Earth before entering the atmosphere.

To gather the measurements, roaring huge turboprop C-130 and UC-12 planes will roam wide swaths of the eastern United States, maybe even passing over State College, as soon as next year. If one buzzes overhead, know that Davis might be up there.

His mission is to advance our ability to predict and manage future climate change.

The funding is part of a NASA program that, this year alone, will enable five studies worldwide which will examine global air pollution, warming ocean waters and fires in Africa and how they interact with our changing climate.

“These new investigations address a variety of key scientist questions critical to advancing our understanding of how Earth works,” Jack Kaye, associate director for research in NASA’s Earth Science Division in Washington, D.C., said in a news release. “These innovative airborne experiments will let us probe inside processes and locations in unprecedented detail that complements what we can do with our feed of Earth-observing satellites.”

For Penn State scientists, the research process means trying to quantify sources of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases on a regional level, and documenting how weather systems transport those gases into the atmosphere.

Davis, an associate in the university’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, is the mission’s principal investigator and will lead a team of scientists from other universities, federal agencies, national laboratories and private industry. NASA Langley Research Center, in Hampton, Va., is Penn State’s primary partner and will manage the aircraft deployments and airborne measurements.

Scientists have a good idea how much of these greenhouse gases are in the atmosphere on a global level. And they can measure sources and sinks effectively on a small scale, about a kilometer at a time. But extrapolating isn’t easy.

“The core problem in the carbon cycle is that we have a difficult time measuring sources and sinks over large spacial domains — areas comparable to the size of states or larger,” Davis said.

That means it’s difficult for scientists to determine how regions such as the Great Plains or the eastern deciduous forests influences the amount of carbon gases in the atmosphere.

“We can’t say where and when,” Davis said. “Where did that carbon dioxide or methane come from — the Appalachian forests or the Mid-Atlantic states? We don’t have that operational capacity. We’re trying to develop that.”

The airplanes will carry advanced technology that can help Davis’ team collect state-of-the-art observations of greenhouse gases and how the gases are carried through the atmosphere in a variety of weather conditions.

The information should lead to more accuracy and confidence in using the data already being collected by ground-based observation towers and new satellite technology that monitor greenhouse gas sources and sinks around the planet.

“We need better data about what’s going on now to test Earth system models and see if they are doing the right thing,” Davis said.

When we burn fossil fuels, carbon dioxide is produced. About a quarter of that is absorbed by oceans and another quarter by terrestrial ecosystems. That’s good news in the short term for the atmosphere, because it means less of this greenhouse gas remains in the air, Davis said.

But scientists still have much to learn about why this happens, particularly when it comes to the terrestrial ecosystems.

“It’s a relatively unknown process,” Davis said. “So if you are talking about projecting future climates, this is a pretty big unknown. The models that project how ecosystems will absorb carbon in the future go all over the place, because we don’t understand the processes very well.”

Data collected from the planes will help scientists test their current models and could lead to more accuracy in future research.

The flights will focus on the northeast, upper Midwest and Gulf coast states. There will be five campaigns, each lasting about six weeks. The flights will happen during the middle years of the five-year project.

As soon as next year, the C-130 and UC-12 planes will take to the skies, leaving from NASA Wallops and Langley Research Center, and will track greenhouse gases through the atmosphere across the eastern half of the country.