Penn State

In search of greenhouse gases, climate research takes flight

The Atmospheric Carbon and Transport–America, or ACT-America, campaign will observe greenhouse gas transport with instruments on two NASA aircraft including the C-130H from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va.
The Atmospheric Carbon and Transport–America, or ACT-America, campaign will observe greenhouse gas transport with instruments on two NASA aircraft including the C-130H from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va. NASA/PATRICK BLACK

The crew members, flying at altitudes as low as 1,000 feet, keep watch over high-tech lasers as the plane dips below the clouds. Their chariot, a retrofitted C-130 Hercules, jostles a little in the low airspace. They’ve been expecting turbulence.

Seconds later they get it. The plane pivots then swoons, falling into a spiral before recalibrating to its new altitude. Ears pop.

Yet it’s neither the set of a new “Mission Impossible” film nor a real-life secret mission. Despite the evidence to the contrary — the liquid nitrogen on board, the team of scientists tracking data, the vertiginous aerial acrobatics — what’s taking place inside isn’t the stuff of spy fiction. But, with a bit of luck, the research being done on board may help save the world.

Led by Ken Davis, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Penn State, the team is investigating a silent threat, one with global implications. Part of the Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America, or ACT-America, program, the flight is one of several Davis’ crew will take across various regions of the country where they will document carbon dioxide and methane, two important greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The outcome of the research, conducted in partnership with NASA, may be far-reaching for the study of climate change. The crew will take measurements at different altitudes, assessing the effect of weather patterns and regional elements on the gases’ levels. It’s the first time, Davis said, such research has been done.

“If I have these aircraft, I can say ‘look, a front is approaching; let’s fly across it at two or three or four different altitudes and see exactly what is happening at this time,’ ” Davis said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing and we did that twice over the past couple of weeks.”

In total, the team will take about 20 to 25 flights across three regions this summer. In July, the group flew out of NASA Langley and NASA Wallops Flight Center in Virginia. They traversed about four altitudes, Davis said, measuring several meteorological variables. The team collected data that satellites and towers, other means for studying the atmosphere, can’t decipher as clearly.

By Tuesday evening, the team had landed in Lincoln, Neb., tired from a long day of flying over parts of the Midwest.

“One of the big things of the campaign is seeing how storms and how air from the lowest levels of the atmosphere — where we live, where are the emissions are — gets mixed up by things like storms higher into the atmosphere,” said Josh DiGangi, one of NASA’s lead scientists on the project.

The research will help fill in the gaps, DiGangi said, providing a more detailed picture of climate change. The regional nature of the research, which will continue until 2019, will help further identify sources and sinks, or the release and removal, of greenhouse gases.

“In the end we hope to have better tools for measuring sources and sinks of carbon dioxide and methane for the Earth’s atmosphere,” Davis said. “The basic problem we’re working on is that we don’t have a very good means of measuring those sources and sinks at a regional scale.”

Flight plan

The flights, usually about four hours long, are split between the C-130 and King Air B-200. On Tuesday, DiGangi flew in the smaller B-200 with two pilots, analyzing the air immediately outside the aircraft. DiGangi said a vacuum pump sucks air into the controlled conditions of the aircraft, whereupon its components are measured.

As for the turbulence, the crew members, many of whom are veterans of airborne research, have largely become inured to the ebbs and flows of flight. Still, it’s not a bad idea to have some motion sickness patches on you, DiGangi said.

“They have their pluses and minuses,” he said. “The C-130 has a lot of vibrations, but it also has a bathroom.

“The small aircraft does not, so a four-and-a-half-hour flight without a bathroom,” he added, laughing. “Yeah, it’s not fun sometimes.”

The planes are designed for research, not comfort, largely taken up by expensive, high-tech equipment. Yet they’re not totally bereft of amenities. The C-130 has a refrigerator and a microwave. There’s a Keurig, too, for those longer, eight-hour journeys.

Inside the former U.S. Coast Guard plane, the team of scientists communicates through headsets. It’s too loud to hear one another without them.

The C-130 houses the multi-function laser lidar, a detection system that analyzes carbon dioxide levels below the aircraft. That’s where the liquid nitrogen comes in — it’s needed to cool the detector and keep it functional.

“These are fairly common models of aircraft,” Davis said, “but what’s inside them is not common.”

Aboard the B-200, fields of corn are visible from one of the plane’s four windows. (The flights are not for the claustrophobic.) Regional factors, such as forests or corn fields, can act as sinks, Davis said. The flights can help pinpoint the effect they have on the atmosphere.

Next on the itinerary is Shreveport, La. The group is set to be there on Monday.

From the seas to the skies

Plankton, those infinitesimal critters that live deep within the ocean, seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Yet there are more of them in our seas than there are stars in the universe, according to the Smithsonian. They are the literal bottom of the food chain, the tiny building blocks upon which entire ecosystems are built.

But as few of us tote microscopes around or live under the sea, plankton translate as a decent reification of the expression “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”

The same could be said for climate change, a trigger phrase for punditry despite a growing body of scientific evidence.

Research says plankton could be affected by climate change, corroding the minuscule yet expansive scaffolding of the planet’s biodiversity. In another context, it’s a bit like playing Jenga, removing the bottom blocks first and hoping things will turn out OK.

Still, plankton are tiny. Other than scientists, who cares about the plight of puny plankton? Moreover, who gives a flying fish about warming seas and a rising global surface temperature, factors that may adversely affect plankton populations down the road?

At a more macro level, climate change has claimed a lake, a way of life and, perhaps, future Olympics. The growing problem garnered attention during this current Olympiad when actress Judi Dench delivered a cold splash of water to Rio’s joie de vivre-infused opening ceremonies.

“By understanding how carbon dioxide and methane mix in the atmosphere,” DiGangi said, “by understanding that better, we can understand the measurements that we’re using for really doing the large-scale, global quantification of greenhouse gases.”

From the seas to the skies, climate change is a shared burden among the world’s nations. Science, meanwhile, is trying to keep up with a rapidly changing ecosystem. According to NASA, 2015 ranks as the warmest year since records were first kept in 1880. And in the past 50 years, the global surface temperature increased by about 1.65 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the 85 years before that, by comparison, the temperature had increased by about 0.25 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NASA.

For the scientists who study this phenomena, new methods are needed to keep pace with a changing atmosphere. Davis hopes the project, which is five years in the making, will inform the field for years to come.

His team’s members, far from secret agents, are nonetheless conducting a different kind of reconnaissance mission. They have flights scheduled for next spring, and will continue them through 2018. They plan to compare the effect of different seasons on greenhouse gas levels.

“We know what the planet is doing as a whole, but we don’t know if you said, ‘Hey, how about the forests of the eastern United States? How much carbon did they remove from the atmosphere last year?’ ” he said. “I could not answer that question very well at this point. We’re hoping to improve our ability to answer questions like that. How is a longer story.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy