Pole-to-Pole air trek collects valuable air samples

November 25, 2009

A three-week tour from the Colorado Rockies to the Arctic Ocean, the tropics, Antarctica and then back again to the Arctic again can give a new perspective of the world.

“You get a feeling of how small the earth is,” said Pavel Romashkin, project manager for a scientific mission that just completed such a trek. “All of us are on a really small place, this little planet of ours.”

The HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observation mission, sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation, takes researchers aboard a highly modified Gulfstream jet to measure carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other gases in the atmosphere at nearly all the earth’s latitudes.

Romashkin, a scientist with the Boulder, Colorado-based National Center for Atmospheric Research, was joined by researchers from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a handful of universities and academic institutions.

The goal is not to prove or disprove that global warming is occurring, but simply to gather information about what is really in the air 1,000 to more than 40,000 feet above the earth’s surface, Romashkin said.

“This is where the emissions are coming up, this is how far they’re going up, this is where they’re staying in the air,” he said. “All we can do is collect facts about what is in the atmosphere. This is a fact of life.”

The gathered real-world data can be used to check the accuracy of weather and climate models, he said. Ultimately, such data could be used to ensure the accuracy of carbon-trading or carbon-capping systems, if any are enacted.

Among the early observations from the journey, according to Romashkin:

* Pollution over the Southern Hemisphere appears to be much greater than atmospheric models predict. Models appear to underestimate the extent of transport from the Northern Hemisphere.

* A band of pollutants gave the atmosphere over the Arctic a yellowish cast somewhat like the legendary haze hanging over cities like Los Angeles, according to the scientists. That pollution, seen in early November, was directly attributable to industrial and urban emissions coming from Asia and transported north by atmospheric currents.

* Layers of gases and pollutants are often clearly separated from each other, with dirty bands quite distinct from the clear air. The plane could be flying through a band of thickly polluted air drifting from Asia, then increase a bit in altitude and be in fresh, clean air, Romashkin said.

The pole-to-pole journey concluded last Sunday with a trip from Anchorage back to the aircraft’s base in Broomfield, Colorado. It was the second of five planned over a span of about three years. The first three-week pole-to-pole trek was last January, and the next one is planned for this coming March and April.

The plan is to conduct flights during varying seasons of the year, Romashkin said.
As a government-funded National Science Foundation project, the mission makes all its data available to the public.

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