NASA takes climate change study to the air

The DC-8 airborne laboratory is one of several NASA aircraft that will fly in support the ...

The DC-8 airborne laboratory is one of several NASA aircraft that will fly in support the five new Earth Venture class missions to launch this year (Photo: NASA).

With the goal of shedding more light on a number of Earth system processes whose effect on our climate is incompletely understood, NASA will this year launch five new airborne field campaigns. These studies will look at long-range air pollution, warming ocean waters, melting Greenland glaciers, greenhouse gas sources, fires in Africa and clouds over the Atlantic, with the captured data to complement satellite- and surface-based observations to help provide a better understanding of the interconnected systems that affect our climate and how it is changing.

The missions were selected from a list of 33 proposals, with each to be funded by up to US$30 million over five years as part of the Earth Venture-class of missions. These are a series of uncoupled, relatively low-to-moderate cost, small to medium-sized, competitively selected missions, the first series of which were undertaken in 2010.

The five new missions are as follows:

  • The Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America project: A US-based study into greenhouse gases, which will attempt to quantify the sources of regional carbon dioxide and methane, among other gases, and then look at the way weather systems move theses gases in the atmosphere. The goal is to improve identification and predictions of the sources of methane and CO2 sources and sinks across the eastern United States using data gathered from airborne, ground-based and space-borne sources.
  • Observations of Aerosols above Clouds and their Interactions project: A study into the impact on clouds over the Atlantic from particles emitted from large-scale seasonal burning in Africa. The particles are caught up in the mid troposphere, the lowest layer of the planet’s atmosphere, and then head west over the southeast Atlantic where they interact with permanent statocumulous clouds, which NASA calls “climate radiators”. These are the rounded and bumpier clouds that hang lower in the sky and are important to both the regional and global climate systems.
  • The Oceans Melting Greenland project: This study will examine how the Atlantic’s warmer and more salty subsurface waters affect the melting of Greenland’s glaciers, which will in turn ideally lead to better predictions of future sea level rise by observing changes in glacier melting where ice comes into contact with seawater. Ships and several aircraft will be involved in taking measurements of the ocean bottom and seawater properties around Greebnland.
  • The Atmospheric Tomography project: With the goal of better understand the changes in atmospheric chemistry wrought by varied air pollutants, this project will use airborne instruments to look at the impact of man-made air pollution on certain greenhouse gases. The area to be studied is extensive, with flights leaving California and traveling to the western Arctic, the South Pacific, the Atlantic and Greenland.
  • The North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study: An Oregon-based study that will examine the way ocean ecosystems might change as a result of the warming of the oceans. It will look at the impact small airborne particles from marine organisms have on the North Atlantic climate and focus on the annual life cycle of phytoplankton, as NASA believes the large bloom in the North Atlantic each year may "influence the Earth’s energy budget."

"These innovative airborne experiments will let us probe inside processes and locations in unprecedented detail that complements what we can do with our fleet of Earth-observing satellites," said Jack Kaye, associate director for research in NASA's Earth Science Division.

In total, these five new projects will involve seven NASA centers, 25 universities and other educational institutions, three American government agencies and two industry partners.

Source: NASA

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