An Atmospheric Science Workout


The world is full of diet and exercise plans. Eat less carbs, eat more carbs, practice yoga, go for a run.

In my opinion, the most consistent way to burn calories is by working for the Whole Air Sampling (WAS) group in the Rowland-Blake lab. Fortunately, as an atmospheric chemist and PhD candidate, I get to work for (and work out with) them full time.

I had the incredible opportunity to represent WAS as a Science Mentor for NASA’s Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) this summer.

I mentored seven undergraduate students from universities all around the United States. Together, we developed and executed seven different projects studying air quality in California. Most people are familiar with gases like nitrogen and oxygen, which do make up a large percentage of what we breathe. However, WAS is more focused on the “trace gases”—compounds like methane or carbon dioxide that still play important roles in climate and human health. All SARP projects were based on current field work as well as previous data.

The WAS group collects air samples inside stainless steel, 2-liter canisters. The canisters are emptied before sampling, so they suck in air upon opening. We can collect these samples on the ground, in mobile labs, or aboard NASA’s aircraft to figure out what gases make up the air. For SARP, we hooked up twenty-four of these canisters together to form what we call a “snake,” aptly named because of the snaked appearance of the tubing. NASA’s DC-8 airplane can carry up to seven snakes at a time. These are hooked up to a pump, which pulls in air from outside the plane. Samples are collected at various altitudes over varying topography from within the hot airplane. The combination of low altitude and heat can lead to a very bumpy ride, which results in many students and mentors getting motion sickness and vomiting above scenic locations around California. It sounds gross, but puking for science is a noble cause.

A sweaty, nauseous version of myself preparing to collect a WAS sample aboard the NASA DC-8 for the SARP 2019 mission. Canisters in four of the seven onboard snakes can be seen. Credits: Megan Schill

You are probably eager to learn what snakes on a plane have to do with staying in shape. After SARP flights are complete, the students detach the filled snakes and swap them out with fresh ones. The snakes weigh a minimum 70 pounds each! Each one must be delicately finessed out of the WAS rack, carried though the long aisle of the plane amidst bustling scientists, and transported down the stairs, where they are packaged into boxes. From there, they are loaded onto a truck for their journey back to the University of California, Irvine. This all requires a lot of upper body strength.

WAS students Anna Winter, Nicolas Farley, and Bronte Dalton get ready to swap out snakes aboard the NASA DC-8. Credits: Megan Schill

Once the snakes arrive in Irvine, SARP students analyze the canisters alongside lab technicians to determine the identity and concentration of nearly 100 gases. WAS students in SARP have the unique opportunity to not only collect samples relevant to their research projects but also enjoy some hands-on lab experience! Don Blake, our fearless leader and faculty mentor, is the Rowland-Blake group’s principal investigator. He has been an integral part of SARP since its inauguration in 2009.

Don Blake teaches WAS SARP student Katrina Rokosz how to properly collect a whole air sample: “Away from your body and into the wind,” he says. Credits: Brenna Biggs

This summer, the WAS SARP students had projects that varied regionally and over time. As a group, my students were able to incorporate every year of the SARP dataset; that’s over a decade of data! Many of my students chose to focus on California’s Central Valley, which has a reputation for poor air quality due to a combination of topography oil drilling and agricultural activity.

Photos taken during hot and bumpy flights around California during July 2019 to determine air composition around the Central Valley and the Pacific coast. Credits: Brenna Biggs
Photos taken during hot and bumpy flights around California during July 2019 to determine air composition around the Central Valley and the Pacific coast. Credits: Brenna Biggs

Using archived WAS data from previous SARPs, Bronte Dalton, a student from Columbia University, analyzed hydrocarbons, such as methane and ethane, to discover potentially unreported oil spills. She found oil throughout sparsely populated areas in the San Joaquin Valley. Katrina Rokosz, a student from University of Vermont, found elevated levels of marine gases wreaking havoc within the Valley, year after year. She showed not only that these gases were likely coming from the ocean, but also how they could affect air quality for people living in the region.

In addition to past data, my students also used data collected in 2019. One exciting opportunity arose after the magnitude 7.1 earthquake near Ridgecrest, California. Melissa Taha,  a student from California State University, San Bernardino, focused on measuring gases that resulted from the earthquake. We were able to adjust the SARP flight plans to include waypoints near Death Valley, where aftershocks continued to occur. At low altitude near the faults, WAS and other instruments measured several gases. Measurements of elevated levels of these gases could be used to better understand earthquakes in the future

Samuel Dobson, a student from Henderson State University, determined how elevated ethanol emissions from wineries affect disadvantaged communities in California. During the SARP flights this year, we targeted wineries within the Central Valley to determine the spread of these emissions. I also drove the students to these wineries to collect air samples. We visited boutique wineries near the airplane hangar in Palmdale. We even traveled as far as Fresno, California, to sample at a very large, industrial winery. (It looked more like an oil refinery!)

This summer was challenging, rigorous, and highly worth it. My students successfully selected difficult research questions and worked hard to find answers. They pushed the limits of their own understanding, and I could not be prouder of them.

Grass, Shrub, Grass… Tree! Measuring Regrowth in a Burned Forest

A black spruce sapling growing among grass in an area of taiga forest that burned in 2015. Credits: NASA/Maria-José Viñas


“Oh, and here’s a black spruce!” exclaimed Charlotte Weinstein, an assistant research scientist at Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI), while pointing at a delicate sapling barely the height of a thumb that was almost hidden among the tall grass.

Weinstein and her colleague Shannon Rose, a research fellow at University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UM-A), were painstakingly counting and cataloguing each plant growing in a one-by-one-meter square plot set up in a taiga forest in a remote corner of Canada’s Northwest Territories. The forest burned in 2015, and the wildfire left behind an austere landscape of blackened thin trunks sticking out from the ground, interspersed with patches of exposed limestone rock that had previously been covered by a thick mat of organic soil that burned during the fire.

Four years after the event, vegetation is growing again. But how different will it be from the original taiga forest? Will the new shrubs and trees and the reforming organic soil layer be able to store a similar amount of carbon? Will the changes in plant composition and soil moisture also affect the animal species dependent on the forest?

Charlotte Weinstein (right) and Shannon Rose catalogue all growing in a one-by-one-meter square plot. Credits: NASA/Maria-José Viñas

To answer those questions and more, groups of researchers from all over the United States and Canada are flocking to the Northwest Territories in summer 2019 to carry field work under the umbrella of NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), a comprehensive field campaign that probes the resilience of Arctic and boreal  ecosystems and societies to environmental change – including wildfires.

Weinstein and Rose worked together with Mike Battaglia (MTRI) and Paul Siqueira (UM-A), who took measurements of soil moisture and active layer depth (the top layer of soil that thaws during the summer and freezes in autumn) while the women counted plants. The researchers had all been doing field work for days when a small team of NASA communicators, including this writer, visited them in the field on Aug. 17; they still had about a dozen field sites to explore in the upcoming days. After sampling the burned area, the group moved on to a nearby swath of intact forest – in there, under the canopy of the intact trees, the carbon-rich soil was incredibly squishy and would sink under one’s steps, enveloping my hiking boots in bright green moss.

The active layer and soil moisture measurements were repeated in the unburned forest, but this time the researchers were also gauging plant biomass. Weinstein and Rose started measuring the diameter and height of all trees within a 10-by-10-meter square, while Battaglia dug a pit and extracted a large cube of dark soil to measure and take samples of the organic layers. Because the soil is frozen most of the year in the Arctic and boreal regions, the organic matter within doesn’t decompose. As a result, soils in those parts of the world often sequester more carbon than the trees and shrubs growing on them.

Mike Battaglia holds up a block of carbon-rich soil extracted from an unburned forest near Kakisa, Northwest Territories, Canada. Credits: NASA/Maria-José Viñas

After their field campaign, the team’s measurements of plant composition, biomass, soil moisture and active layer will become part of ABoVE’s  wealth of publicly-shared data.

“Our end game is to incorporate all field and remote sensing measurements into computer models to understand the long-term change of the land,” Battaglia said.

A Scavenger Hunt for Fire

The first real taste of smoke comes shortly after 1 p.m. from what the team dubs the Half Pint Fire. It’s near the Texas-Louisiana state line. The plume is visible here near the wingtip. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson

by Joe Atkinson / SALINA, KANSAS /

Time for a change of scenery.

After nearly a month flying missions out of Boise, Idaho, to sample smoke from big wildfires in the western U.S., the Fire Influence on Regional to Global Environments and Air Quality, or FIREX-AQ, is pulling up stakes and moving to America’s heartland — Salina, Kansas, to be exact.

NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory, the primary platform for the joint NASA-NOAA airborne science campaign, lands at the Salina Regional Airport Aug. 19.

From here, the mission will spend the next couple of weeks targeting smaller prescribed and agricultural burns in the south and southeast. These fires, which help to manage fuel loads and  reset plant succession, don’t put out as much smoke as the wildfires out west, but can still have a dramatic effect on air quality and weather.

Because the smoke from these fires is poorly represented in emission inventories and not always well visualized by satellites, it’s a prime target for FIREX-AQ researchers, who want to better understand its chemistry and behavior.

After an Aug. 20 event to inform the community and local media about the mission, the team gets down to brass tacks. Researchers had hoped one of their first missions out of Salina would target a prescribed burn in the Blackwater River State Forest in Florida’s panhandle, but soggy conditions have prevented that burn from happening. It’ll have to wait.

At an event to inform the community about FIREX-AQ, a TV news station from Wichita interviews mission scientist Jim Crawford. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson

Jim Crawford, FIREX-AQ mission scientist from NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, is hungry to get this new phase of the campaign underway, though. At the first Salina forecast meeting, he and the team decide to waste no time. They’ll fly the next day and let the ground team guide them to areas where small fires might be burning. It’ll be an opportunity to work out some kinks.

“This is a scavenger hunt profile that we’re flying,” Crawford says.

The event draws several school groups and a number of folks who are just curious to find out a little more about what NASA and NOAA are doing in town. A young aviation enthusiast drives six hours from Denver just to see the DC-8 with his own two eyes. Here, mission scientist Joshua “Shuka” Schwarz from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, talks to people on the DC-8. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson

The Search Begins

At the morning pre-brief for the Aug. 21 flight, Crawford unveils the flight plan, which will take the DC-8 on a roughly oval path that will cover ground from just over Lubbock, Texas, at its westernmost point to southern Illinois at its easternmost point. Based on information from satellites and models, fires are likely in the Oklahoma panhandle and northern Texas. Mission forecasters also expect to see agricultural fires in areas along the Mississippi River.

Following a long forecast meeting, the team decides to hunt for small prescribed and agricultural burns during its first flight for phase two of FIREX-AQ. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson
DC-8: The DC-8 sits on the tarmac at Salina Municipal Airport in the minutes before takeoff. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson

Everyone heads out to the tarmac and boards the DC-8. Researchers make final checks to their instruments and strap in. All said, there are 43 souls on this flight. It’s just after 10 a.m. and the plane is barely off the ground when Crawford’s voice chimes in over the headset.

“It’s not too soon to start looking for fires, folks,” he says.

He promises an award to the person who spots the most fires.

Early going is discouraging. A small plume in Kansas is deemed unworthy of measurement. Twin plumes a little farther down the flight path look interesting, but their proximity to windmills means it’ll be difficult for pilot Greg Slover of Langley to maneuver the DC-8 low enough for the instruments to make good measurements.

Over the panhandle of Oklahoma where the forecast team had anticipated fires to materialize, none do.

It’s 11 a.m. and the plane is somewhere over northern Texas — still no fire.

“We’re an hour in and batting zero,” Crawford says.

Finally, Fire

It’s almost noon before someone spots a promising plume in Texas between Lubbock and Wichita Falls.

This one is a surprise. Satellites haven’t picked it up. But it actually reinforces the reasoning behind this second phase of the campaign. Many smaller fires simply don’t show up in satellite imagery or models.

“This goes back to the question of, are we seeing these small fires?” Crawford says.

The plume turns out to be from an active, named wildfire that people on the ground are fighting. The team chooses not to fly through it.

Things are about to heat up, though.

The team opts to peel south of the intended flight path and head toward a potential target right on the Texas-Louisiana border, near Shreveport.

This is where things get fun. The plumes for these small fires don’t extended thousands and thousands of feet up like the ones from the wildfires out west, so in order for the scientists to be able to collect measurements with their instruments, Slover and crew have to bring the DC-8 in as low as regulations allow — 1,000 feet.

The air at 1,000 feet is turbulent and hot. The maneuvers to fly through these small plumes at multiple angles involve lots of stomach-churning twists and turns. If you’re prone to motion sickness, it’s not exactly an ideal situation.

But that’s the exact situation that occurs as the flight zeroes in on the blaze near the state line, which the team dubs the Half-Pint Fire.

Cameras on the DC-8 allow you to watch the flight from multiple angles on a laptop or phone. In this screengrab, you can see the shadow of the DC-8 on the ground in the moments before it flies through the Half Pint plume. On the left is an infrared view. The lighter colors are hotter. Credits: NASA

It’s a few minutes after 1 p.m. The DC-8 zooms forward, the treetops clearly visible below. Over the headset, Crawford counts down the approach to the plume:

3, 2, 1

The heat rising off the burning field causes a jolt of turbulence. Readouts on computer monitors spike as instruments register the gases in the smoke plume.

“Oh yeah!” one of the scientists says over the headset.

“Big hit!” says another one.

The acrid smell of the smoke fills the cabin for a few seconds.

This is just the beginning.

The folks on the ground have spotted a potential target near the Mississippi River in northeastern Louisiana. There, the team hits the jackpot. It turns out multiple small agricultural fires are burning in the area.

After a brief respite at a smooth, comfortable altitude, the DC-8 dips back to an altitude where details on the ground are easy to make out. The pilots fly bowtie patterns that carry us through one plume after another. The team hits on a food theme as it names the fires — Lil’ Debbie, Rice-A-Roni, Crawdad, Crawbaby, Gumbo.

Crawford is wearing a prescription patch that staves off motion sickness — an oft used medication in the airborne science world.

“Even with the patch,” he says, “I’m feeling a little woozy.”

A Brief Aside

This is where I take a moment to break the fourth wall and tell you I puked for science.

As we maneuvered through what I’ll call the food fires, I scribbled this in my notebook: 2:10p.m. fires near the Louis./Miss. state line.

After that, I put my head back, closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable.

Shortly after we crossed the Mississippi River into Mississippi and made a beeline for a fire the team would name Jambalaya Jr., I pulled off my headset and made as much of a beeline to the lavatory as the turbulent conditions would allow.

It was an interesting experience given all the maneuvering. I lost track of time and prayed for it to be over soon. And then it was over and I emerged from the lavatory feeling much better. As I got back to my seat, we had just finished zipping through the last plume we would sample—from the Po’Boy Fire.

Thank God.

With some guidance from the team on the ground, we finally hit the jackpot and find multiple small fires blazing on both sides of the Mississippi River in Louisiana and Mississippi. As illustrated on the flight plot here, the pilots fly nauseating low-level crossing patterns through one fire after another. The team names most of the fires after food. Credits: NASA

A Learning Experience

After Po’Boy, it’s over. The pilots climb back to a comfortable altitude and head back to Salina. We never made it to the easternmost point on our original flight plan, but after a start that suggested a fire famine, we found our fire feast in the southeast.

Following the intense flying of the last hour or so, some of the scientists get up and mill around the cabin and chat or eat snacks. Others try to catch a few winks on the trip back to home base.

Carsten Werneke, FIREX-AQ mission scientist from the University of Colorado working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, is part of the ground team in Salina that’s been directing the aircraft to fires. Over the text chat system that allows scientists on the aircraft to communicate with scientists on the ground, he has an exchange with Crawford:

carsten_: I think we learned a lot today, should be easier next time.

JimC_DC8: Agreed

At the post-flight debrief shortly after the plane lands back in Salina, Crawford shares his thoughts.

He notes that on future flights it would make more sense to fly high and fast to known or suspected hot spots, rather than low and slow, hoping to spot fires along the way, which was the approach during the first part of today’s flight.

He also tips his hat to the pilots for “carving it up” once the fires materialized, not only because they flew successful crossing patterns through the plumes, but also because they were able to get lined up directly on the next targeted fire.

Mostly, Crawford expresses his happiness with how phase two of FIREX-AQ has begun.

“After a slow start,” he says, “we take away from this the pretty optimistic view that we can get a lot of fires.

ACT-America: Barbecue, Cold Fronts and a Diversion from the Plan

A six-hour flight makes for a long day, but I’m so glad to learn more about NASA’s Earth science missions and how even the seemingly simplest things — such as clouds and climate — can have intricacies and complexities that people devote their whole lives to studying.


Sunday, 1900

NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility may not be on your immediate radar. It’s located in the northeastern corner of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, near Chincoteague Island. I sit at Woody’s Serious Food, a beachy-styled outdoor food stand on the island. They definitely have some of the best pulled pork sandwiches I’ve ever had — the kind where the flavor is all in the meat rather than the sauce. Coming from Texas, praising someone else’s barbecue is a huge compliment. I swat a mosquito and shoo a seagull away from my table. Driving up from Hampton Roads, I wasn’t visiting the area for the near-perfect corn fritters.

My backpack held an assortment of things, from a battery charger and laptop so I could write, to breakfast biscuits and pretzel crackers to munch on. My dad, ever the optimist, recommended that I eat peanut butter the morning of — because it tastes the same coming up as it does going down. I’d been warned that some passengers get motion sickness from the low altitude the plane flies to take measurements. Credits: Andrea Lloyd


Tomorrow morning will be an Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America, or ACT-America, flight — my first airborne science campaign flight. The night before, I sat at home trying to determine what does someone actually bring on a science flight. Joe Atkinson, my coworker, recommended a jacket and motion sickness pills, so of course that was on the list. I threw together some snacks, my laptop, headphones — not so different from what I brought on the commercial flight I took earlier this year to get to Virginia for my public affairs internship at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton.

Monday, 0800

“Today is a cold front,” says Ken Davis, ACT-America’s principal investigator from Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. “We will be measuring the changes in greenhouse gases along this frontal boundary.”

While cold fronts in general are old news, the ACT-America team will be looking at the concentrations of greenhouse gases around the front to help improve computational models. The atmosphere behaves like a cyclone, swirling and mixing the air. These science flights are collecting data to help validate simulations of this mixing. Understanding this global redistribution of gases for our planet will be vital in coming years, which means we need to learn about the sources and sinks of greenhouse gases now.

Flight crew, science crew and ground crew discuss the best flight plan, considering the weather across the large area our plane will traverse. Davis, second from left, reminds everyone that specificity is important when writing about data measurements, since it helps clear up confusion that can occur later. Credits: Andrea Lloyd

In order to determine a flight plan for the day, pilots and researchers work together to consider both the safety of the aircraft and its passengers, and the science goals. Factors that affect this are the terrain, the weather forecast across multiple states and the desired data for the science team. Even though researchers want to be near the cold front, when hot and cold air masses collide, thunderstorms will occur. No pilot wants to fly through those — particularly on a plane containing sensitive scientific instruments.

There were actually two flights following the same cold front that day. One of these was a Beechcraft Super King Air B200 (the green path) and the other was the C-130 I was on (the blue path). The red diversion you see comes later on in the story, where we avoid a thunderstorm. Credits: NASA

Ultimately, because of the Appalachian Mountains and the potential thunderstorms, we choose a route to go ahead of the cold front to collect data, then circle back to get the same corridor after the storm pushes through.


I board a C-130 Hercules, originally used as a Coast Guard cargo transport before joining NASA’s ranks. There I meet the other passengers, both human and instrument. Active remote sensing and in situ units are used on this flight, allowing science researchers to analyze and validate trace amounts of target gases during the flight. Using different instruments together paints a more detailed picture of the data collected.

I climb into the cockpit ready to watch the take off. Because of how loud the plane is while airborne, we’re required to wear ear protection. My heart beats a little faster. Logically, this shouldn’t be much different than an ordinary commercial flight. But strapping in a 4-point harness instead of a lap belt and hearing the pilots chatter through large green pilot headphones makes everything 10 times cooler.

It was really cool to hear the C-130 pilots communicate with other aircraft. Some of the maneuvers for an airborne science campaign are different than a commercial aircraft would use, like dipping to lower altitudes or doing wide spiral turns. Our pilots jokingly speculated that the other planes probably thought we were crazy doing such unusual flight patterns. Credits: Andrea Lloyd


At this point, I venture to the cargo area, where the science crew sits. While those on the ground are probably eating sandwiches for lunch, most of the crew has snacks. Rory Barton-Grimly has a rice dish in the back that I assume he heated up in the microwave. Josh DiGangi eats red licorice, his favorite science flight snack, and offers to share with everyone. Max Eckl bites into a green Granny Smith apple while monitoring one of the systems.

Between chewing, one of us notices that our flight path passes over a slice of Canada, which spurs a lively discussion about buying red licorice in bulk at international grocery chains, further digressing into what a wholesale store is for some of the foreign-based scientists.

In the background, past the microwave and fridge, you can see Shawn Corliss, the C-130 loadmaster, and Steven Schill. Schill is in charge of the data systems, different than the instruments. His systems record things like the flight location, time and other constants to which researchers can compare their instrument data. Credits: Andrea Lloyd


To reach the varying heights the researchers need to make their greenhouse gas measurements, the pilots will fly as low as 1,000 feet and as high as 21,000 feet. Sometimes they maneuver into long spirals that carry us up or down from one altitude to the next. Brian Bernth, the pilot for our flight, explains to me that flying for science airborne campaigns isn’t that much different from any other flights. “You do what you always do, the same flight planning, the same approach to weather,” he says. But these flights aren’t about getting to the next location faster or doing a maneuver quickly, which he experienced as a military pilot.

“Depending on the instrumentation on a plane, there are some serious limitations based on what the instruments need,” says Bernth. Keeping aware of the sensitivities of the equipment can be really important. Some lidar systems shut off when they’re over a certain angular degree. Plus, you have the science crew to worry about. “You are always trying to provide as smooth a platform as possible for them,” Bernth continues.

Brian Bernth, our pilot, is a retired Marine aviator of 20-plus years. In the green flight suit you can see co-pilot Rodney Turbak and behind Bernth is the flight engineer, Kerry Gros. “Flying is flying,” Bernth says, but he acknowledges there are certain restraints he has to keep in mind when pushing the aircraft through these long science flights. Credits: Andrea Lloyd


After flying over Michigan and the edge of Canada, the plane is soaring over Pennsylvania when we learn there are thunderstorms up ahead on our final leg. The flight crew and science crew talk back and forth for a little while, deliberating about the best course of action. To keep the crew, equipment and plane safe, they eventually decide to divert from the original plan and fly around some storms, then head directly back to NASA Wallops. (Our diversion is visible on the map where the red line splits off from the blue one.)


After landing and securing everything on the plane, the entire team meets in a conference room for a debrief, sharing the day’s highlights and lessons learned. Ken Davis and the crew talk about the data they collected from the flight and discuss possibilities for the remaining flights, always dependent on the weather. The data today captures snapshots across the entire cold front at different altitudes, which will help to validate and improve the computer models’ predictions.

This internship really was an amazing experience. I learned more about NASA’s missions in Earth, space, and aeronautics. I learned more about how to cover stories in engaging and in-depth ways. Credits: Joe Atkinson

A six-hour flight makes for a long day, but I’m so glad to learn more about NASA’s Earth science missions and how even the seemingly simplest things — such as clouds and climate — can have intricacies and complexities that people devote their whole lives to studying. As July draws to an end, so does this last of five ACT-America field campaigns. The researchers will return to their desks to draw conclusions from their new data and the pilots will fly other flights for other airborne campaigns.


Driving away from NASA Wallops and leaving the Eastern Shore signals a close to my public affairs internship. What remains is to pack my suitcases for the ride back to Texas, throwing the same jacket, laptop and earphones in a backpack. While on one hand I can’t wait for the slow-cooked brisket and Whataburger fries, I will definitely return with greater appreciation of NASA’s dedication to understanding the universe we live in.

ACT-America completed its final science flights July 27.