Flying Scientific Detours Is All Part of the Plan

The NAAMES team prepares for the transit flight to St. John’s International Airport, where it will reside between science flights in which the C-130 rendezvous with the R/V Atlantis in the North Atlantic. Credit: NASA/Denise Lineberry
The NAAMES team prepares for the transit flight to St. John’s International Airport, where it will reside between science flights in which the C-130 will rendezvous with the R/V Atlantis in the North Atlantic. Credit: NASA/Denise Lineberry

by Denise Lineberry / ST. JOHN’S, CANADA /

On Friday, May 13, Shane Tungate, the aircraft loadmaster, provides a safety briefing to some of the NAAMES, or North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study, team members at NASA’s Langley Research Center, who are preparing to board the C-130 for St. John’s International Airport, Newfoundland. Before the team even gets the chance to get seated, someone hollers out, “Power down!”

An invertor replacement is needed for the engine. At NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, located on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, someone hops in a golf cart to hunt down a replacement from a non-flyable “parts plane.”  The part is found and the B-200 flies it some 75 miles from Wallops to Langley. The part is replaced, and the C-130 flight is three hours behind scheduled takeoff, but preparing for flight.

NAAMES is in the field this month on the second of four deployments. About half the carbon dioxide emitted into Earth’s atmosphere each year ends up in the ocean, and plankton absorbs a lot of it. NAAMES studies the world’s largest plankton bloom and how it gives rise to small organic particles that leave the ocean and end up in the atmosphere, ultimately influencing clouds and climate. This month coincides with a critical phase of the bloom. Researchers will take measurements by sea and by air from St. John’s.

Not much is conventional about a ride on NASA’s C-130. The seat belt buckle looks a little like it’s from medieval times. Some walls are covered in diamond-stitched liner and many stretches and bundles of cords line the sides and top of the aircraft’s interior. Window seats are not an option since the only windows are on the aircraft’s three doors and in the cockpit.

Seat belt
The seatbelt buckle on the C-130H. It doesn’t have to be pretty; it just has to work. Credit: NASA/Denise Lineberry

When in flight, the cockpit’s room temperature is about 70 degrees F. The middle of the plane, where a majority of the team is seated, is about 60 degrees F. The back of the plane, occupied by items such as water and luggage, is about 30 degrees F.

The takeoff is smooth and the team’s screens immediately begin to light up with colorful data plots from instruments on board the C-130, such as the GCAS (GeoCAPE Airborne Simulator) and AMS (Aerosol Mass Spectrometer).

It is a nonstop transit flight with the end goal of getting the team to St. John’s to start planning science flights in coordination with the R/V Atlantis. However, the scientists are so anxious to get data that they set up some scientific detours along the way.

Remote sensing instruments on board the C-130 gather color gradient measurements, from the clear water in the Albemarle Sound to the most productive ocean water in the world in the North Atlantic.

“You can see a distinct change in ocean,” one team member says over the aircraft’s communication system as we pass from one gradient to another.

The C-130 also spirals down over Sable Island, just southwest of Newfoundland.  From the cockpit, the surface water goes from flat to angled, flat to angled, as the pilots circle the aircraft lower. The island comes in and out of sight, along with the sun and a pod of seals hopping in and out of the water. It’s such a beautiful view and a surprisingly pleasant circling descent that it’s almost easy to forget this maneuver has a scientific purpose — Sable Island is home to a ground observation site that double-checks the accuracy of aerosol measurements being made on the C-130.

“This looks like an ideal spot,” says NASA Langley scientist Ewan Crosbie over the C-130 telecom.

“Roger that,” says NAAMES Deputy Project Scientist Rich Moore.

“Beginning descent,” the pilot communicates.

They are descending into a “box,” or identified and secured airspace, that was specifically mapped out to test a new instrument that samples cloud water from low-level, warm clouds.

From the ground site on Sable Island, the C-130 can be seen passing over in the upper distance. Credit: NASA/Codey Barnett
From the ground site on Sable Island, the C-130 can be seen passing over in the distance. Credit: NASA/Codey Barnett

The grand finale of the transit flight includes an overpass of the R/V Atlantis in the North Atlantic. The comparison and combination of the shipborne and airborne measurements are the bread and butter of the NAAMES mission. And this initial flight over the Atlantis marks the first of several that will take place over the next few weeks to better understand the ocean-atmosphere interaction.

In the moments before landing, Moore calls out to the instrument teams for checks before powering down the aircraft. All instruments gathered data and the team is delighted to have such clear conditions to measure — thanks to the NAAMES meteorologists who forecasted that leaving a day earlier than planned would be best for the instrument teams.

Weekend plans in St. John’s for NAAMES involve aircraft and instrument maintenance, weather forecasting and flight planning for the first official science flight, tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, May 17.

Atlantis Heads Out to the Bloomin’ Ocean

by Stephanie Schollaert Uz / Woods Hole, MA /

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. To truly understand the whole, however, we need to analyze its parts. That is the mission of the ambitious North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES), whose scientists left port Wednesday with the outgoing tide on the research vessel Atlantis.

R/V Atlantis steaming away from Woods Hole on Wednesday, headed to the North Atlantic. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA
R/V Atlantis steaming away from Woods Hole on Wednesday, headed to the North Atlantic. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA

During this second of four cruises, the ship is in a rush against time and mother nature to reach its northernmost station before the cyclical, massive spring bloom of phytoplankton spreads across the North Atlantic. This is a time when phytoplankton, microscopic algae at the base of the marine food web, grow faster than other things can eat them. The bloom occurs as sunlight increases and nutrients are plentiful at the water’s wind-mixed surface layer. Once their predators catch up, the phytoplankton decline.

The North Atlantic bloom normally peaks in May. Toby Westberry, of Oregon State University, has been watching satellite imagery carefully for the past few weeks and is worried that the bloom is early and already progressing northward. Westberry and NAAMES principal investigator Mike Behrenfeld, also of Oregon State, worked with the ship’s captain and chief engineer to put additional engines on the Atlantis. They hope to cut the week-long transit time to their first station by a few days so that they don’t miss this short window in the phytoplankton’s annual cycle.

Green seas in this satellite image -- captured by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite on Wednesday (May 11, 2016) -- indicate that phytoplankton are starting to bloom in the North Atlantic north of 50 degrees North. The small globe in the lower right corner shows the scale of this image as the darker blue box. The approximate track of the Atlantis is sketched as a dashed red line. Credit: Norman Kuring/NASA
Green seas in this satellite image — captured by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite on Wednesday (May 11, 2016) — indicate that phytoplankton are starting to bloom in the North Atlantic north of 50 degrees North. The small globe in the lower right corner shows the scale of this image as the darker blue box. The approximate track of the Atlantis is sketched as a dashed red line. Credit: Norman Kuring/NASA

NAAMES’ interdisciplinary, multi-institutional science team will take a comprehensive suite of measurements of biological and physical properties in the ocean and also measure the atmosphere for particles and trace gases associated with the spring bloom. This floating laboratory has more sophisticated science equipment per square foot than I have ever seen before. Not to mention an abundance of talented minds to collect and analyze the data through multiple methods from many perspectives.

One of the key goals of the mission is to observe the structure of the phytoplankton community in these ocean blooms to better understand the role of sunlight, predation, and disease by viruses and bacteria. There is a lot of diversity among microscopic phytoplankton and – believe it or not – there is a chance we may be able to distinguish kinds of phytoplankton (their different taxonomic levels) from satellites one day. Data collected by this cruise will assist with that effort.

Cleo Davie-Martin measures volatile organic compounds (gases) the phytoplankton release. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA
Cleo Davie-Martin, Oregon State University, measures volatile organic compounds (gases) that phytoplankton release. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

The other key goal is to determine how plankton interact with the air by releasing small particles and trace gases that can lead to cloud formation. The role of airborne particles in trapping or reflecting sunlight and through cloud formation is one of the biggest open questions in understanding Earth’s climate.

The interdisciplinary ocean and atmospheric science questions of NAAMES parallel those of the upcoming Plankton, Aerosols, Clouds and ocean Ecosystems (PACE) satellite mission to study Earth as a system using an airborne hyperspectral ocean color instrument and polarimeter. Ship-based and airborne measurements will provide valuable information for scientists to develop and test analytical tools to use with future satellite data from PACE.

Jason Graff (left) measures the carbon in phytoplankton through an instrument that bombards sea-water samples with laser and sorts out phytoplankton by their optical response. Cleo Davie-Martin (right) measures volatile organic compounds (gases) the phytoplankton release. Both scientists are from Oregon State University. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA
Jason Graff, Oregon State University, measures the carbon in phytoplankton through an instrument that bombards sea-water samples with laser and sorts out phytoplankton by their optical response. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

And that will bring the project full-circle. The NAAMES field campaign was conceived through analysis of the first continuous ocean color satellite record that Behrenfeld published in 2010. In that study, he noticed the annual phytoplankton spring bloom seemed to start much earlier than previously assumed. Subsequent field campaigns and modeling studies confirmed the basic idea but led to more questions. NAAMES hopes to answer these through its four field campaigns during different phases of the annual life cycle of phytoplankton. Better understanding these important Earth processes will lead to better modeling, that will enable us to more accurately predict and prepare for the future.

Because going to sea is such a precious opportunity, this cruise is packed to the gills with sophisticated sensors and scientists who will study the spring bloom from multiple angles. For the next three weeks, the R/V Atlantis will measure the living ocean along with a C-130 airplane that will fly over the ship collecting measurements of the sea and sky.

When asked about their favorite aspect of going to sea, the food and the camaraderie of shipmates are at the top of most scientists’ lists. Craig Carlson of the University of California at Santa Barbara said, “You’re living in the midst of focused science 24/7. The internet is slow and there are minimal distractions.”

Liz Harvey of the University of Georgia at Skidaway added, “With 16-20 hour days, getting enough sleep is a challenge.”

“Sleep is precious and you build your day around food,” said Graff in agreement. “You’re living on coffee, great food and adrenaline.”

If you’ve spent much time near the ocean, you understand how it can pull you in. And if you haven’t, well, you should.

Life ring and beacon on the R/V Atlantis in case someone falls overboard. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA
Life ring and beacon on the R/V Atlantis in case someone falls overboard. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA


Getting Social on Deck with NAAMES

by Stephanie Schollaert Uz / WOODS HOLE, MASS. /

Humans are social creatures. So what better way to connect them to the complex mission of an air and sea campaign to the North Atlantic that studies plankton, aerosols and cloud formation than through a NASA Social event?

On May 10, a dedicated group of 20 bloggers and social media users from around the country travelled to the sea-side village of Woods Hole, Massachusetts – home of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) – to hear about the multi-faceted North Atlantic Aerosol and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES) from many of the people involved in its science and to tour the research vessel Atlantis.

NAAMESSocial2_Behrenfeld (1)

NAAMES Chief Scientist Mike Behrenfeld explains the importance of plankton for life on Earth. Credit: NASA/Michael Starobin

Michael Phillips, a meteorologist who travelled from New Jersey, is part of the Weather Boy team that uses Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Pinterest. His team of 15 originally used social media to connect with their TV and radio listeners, but now find that more and more of their half-a-million followers only connect to them through on-line content. Phillips covered the NASA Social because “Earth science and weather content resonates most with our audience.”


NASA Social attendees were busy reporting to their followers during the NAAMES overview and question and answer session. Credit: NASA/Michael Starobin

Not all attendees hold day jobs related to Earth science or weather. A pastor from a Baptist church, a legal secretary, medical professionals, photographers and outdoor enthusiasts were among the group. The common theme that bound them was an appreciation for Earth science and innovative technology to make new discoveries. And a sense of adventure. Who else would take time off of work to travel to a previously unheard-of Cape Cod village during the off-season, some with family in tow, for an event like this?

NAAMESSocial3_listeningRapt attention during the NAAMES overview by NASA Social attendees who travelled from all over the country to attend the event. Credit: NASA/Michael Starobin

Attendees enthusiastically tweeted, posted and live-streamed through Periscope and Facebook throughout the day, especially while on the Atlantis. Phillips brought along a cut-out of their Weather Boy cartoon character and tweeted pictures of him around the ship to help audiences connect to the event.

The group toured spaces and equipment used during NAAMES, plus the bridge and living spaces — including the all-important galley. Several scientists emphasized how they build their days at sea around great food and meal times.


Oceanographer Peter Gaube describes the conductivity, temperature, depth (CTD) sensor used to measure sea water density surfaces ‘like a layer cake’ from the ocean surface down to 1000m deep. Credit: NASA/Stephanie Schollaert Uz

The Social began with an overview of NASA’s Earth science program and the five-year field campaign in the North Atlantic by program manager Paula Bontempi of NASA’s Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry program.

Rich Moore, NAAMES Deputy Project Scientist, described the campaign from the perspective of the C-130 aircraft overflights and the measurements they take of particles in the atmosphere that can form clouds. “Without particles in the atmosphere there would be no clouds,” he said.

Journalist Nicole Estephan participated in the first NAAMES cruise last fall and reported how much she cherished her time at sea despite its rough weather. She told the NASA Social participants that storms and high seas made it hard to do simple things like walking and showering. “Every time a wave hits the side of the ship it’s like a cannonball hitting your head, she said.

NAAMES chief scientist Mike Behrenfeld of Oregon State University emphasized that phytoplankton blooms are very important for sustaining marine fisheries and our climate. When asked if humans are impacting them and, if so, what we can do, WHOI scientist Scott Doney described his modeling work to tease apart natural climate patterns from those caused by humans. The biggest impact humans are having is the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Ultimately, the choice to reduce our carbon emissions is our responsibility. After all, humans are social — with the capacity to make new discoveries and solve problems together.


Setting a Course for the World’s Largest Plankton Bloom

The research vessel Atlantis in port. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA
The research vessel Atlantis in port. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA

by Stephanie Schollaert Uz / Woods Hole, MA /

Stephanie Schollaert Uz, PhD, is an ocean scientist working in the Ocean Ecology Lab at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Her research interests include the response of ocean biology to physics. She also coordinates communications for the future NASA ocean color satellite PACE, which will be designed to monitor plankton, ocean ecosystems, airborne particles and clouds.

Timing is everything in life. As the second North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES) cruise prepares to get underway tomorrow, a tightly choreographed and synchronized mobilization plan has been in full swing on the research vessel Atlantis.

From ship crew to the science party and the extra helpers in port, everyone is getting the ship ready for its mission to chase and measure the springtime peak in the North Atlantic phytoplankton bloom and the airborne particles they can release to the atmosphere under the right conditions. Their findings will help scientists better understand how these processes influence clouds and climate.

One week ago, Atlantis returned to its home port in Woods Hole, Massachusetts from its previous mission of searching for the merchant ship El Faro that sank last fall. The ship’s crew and scientists have a total of nine days to turn Atlantis from a ship seeking a single black box in the deep ocean to one seeking billions of plankton in the sun-lit surface ocean and airborne particles in the atmosphere.

The research vessel Atlantis in port during the off-load of the submersible Alvin as the ship prepares for its second NAAMES field campaign. Credit: Dick Pittenger/WHOI
The research vessel Atlantis in port during the off-load of the submersible Alvin as the ship prepares for its second NAAMES field campaign. Credit: Dick Pittenger/WHOI

NAAMES Chief Scientist Michael Behrenfeld of Oregon State University compares the transformation with a puzzle: first, the equipment from the last cruise was removed. The deep-diving submersible Alvin needed to be carefully lifted off using a commercial crane.

Next, the ship was loaded with NAAMES equipment, starting with the biggest gear. Cranes moved four shipping containers, which were outfitted as lab space to measure aerosols, onto the ship’s deck, followed by boxes of sophisticated optical instruments, incubators and other equipment needed for detecting phytoplankton, zooplankton, bacteria and viruses as they cycle through life and death. Several instruments also measure chemistry related to biological processes in the ocean.

According to Ken Kostel with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Communications, this cruise requires more equipment than he’s seen on a typical cruise. Many of the science instruments are unusual, such as snorkels on the ship’s forward half that will continuously intake air to be analyzed for its aerosol content. There are also seawater flow-through systems to analyze ocean biology during the peak of the spring bloom and its subsequent decay. Several instruments will be deployed over the side of the ship. Some will profile the ocean down through the mixed layer, and even deeper, as is the case for the Argo floats.

Françoise Morison (left) of the University of Rhode Island and Caitlin Russell, a former intern at the University of Rhode Island, secure incubators to be used for measuring phytoplankton growth rate under various light levels and their consumption by single-celled organisms and viruses. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA
Françoise Morison (left) of the University of Rhode Island and Caitlin Russell, a former intern at the University of Rhode Island, secure incubators to be used for measuring phytoplankton growth rate under various light levels and their consumption by single-celled organisms and viruses. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

Behrenfeld has been studying rare cloud-free satellite images of the North Atlantic, the last clear view being in mid-April, and noticed an earlier spring bloom than usual this year starting in the subtropical North Atlantic. Because the spring bloom progresses northward, he hopes to catch the end of the bloom peak in the north and monitor its decline as the ship transits southward – very valuable scientific information that has never before been measured in all its complexity.

The main lab on Atlantis where the science party will conduct many analyses while underway, along with measurements taken in several other labs and vans. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA
While underway, the science party will conduct many analyses in Atlantis’s main lab. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA

In addition to the science party, the ship’s crew is busy preparing. The captain, Al Lunt, piloted the NAAMES cruise last fall. It will take Atlantis about a week to get to their northernmost station: southeast of Greenland, around 60 degrees north and 40 degrees west. From there, they will steam directly south through six stations, the last being around 40 degrees north and 40 degrees west.

Meanwhile, the ship’s navigator and second mate, Logan Johnsen, is calculating the best transit route using weather and ocean maps from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Prediction Center. Also included are maps of glaciers that the ship would rather avoid. (The Titanic had unlucky timing in that regard and lacked the benefit of modern technology.)

Logan Johnsen, Atlantis navigator and second mate, studies weather and ocean forecast products to plan the best course to the ship’s North Atlantic study site. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA
Logan Johnsen, Atlantis navigator and second mate, studies weather and ocean forecast products to plan the best course to the ship’s North Atlantic study site. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

At 275 feet long, Atlantis is one of the biggest and most expensive ships in the US Academic Research Fleet, owned by the US Navy and operated by WHOI. A day at sea costs approximately $50,000. Its funding comes from a number of federal agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA and the Office of Naval Research. According to Rose Dufour of NSF, between 75 and 95 percent of its cost is covered by NSF in a typical year.

Aligning a cruise to a location of interest can take several years of planning, preparation and waiting your turn. In the end, whether this well-equipped NASA-funded NAAMES campaign catches the North Atlantic spring bloom will depend on its timing.

A Visit to Taehwa Research Forest

Forest from above

by Emily Schaller / OSAN AIR BASE, SOUTH KOREA /

Driving up a winding, bumpy road through a peaceful forest with tall pine trees towering over us, it was easy to forget that the megacity of Seoul was only 25 miles away.

This serene spot is the location of theTaehwa Mountain Forest Research site, one of the ground-monitoring “super sites” for the Korea US Air Quality (KORUS-AQ) study.    

South Korea maintains a network of more than 300 air quality research stations across the peninsula. KORUS-AQ is making use of data from these ground sites and has added significantly to the instrumentation at two locations (Olympic Park and Taehwa Mountain) and dubbed them ground “super sites.”

The Taehwa site hosts a suite of air quality monitoring instruments from the Korean National Institute for Environmental Research (NIER), NASA, the University of California Irvine, Korea University, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Aerodyne Systems.

One of the key issues for improving air quality forecasts is better understanding how human emissions from cars, power plants and industry interact with natural emissions from trees and plants.  Although we usually think of forest air as being completely clean, chemical emissions from trees — called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — are not always benign, especially when these emissions mix and react with urban emissions.  These reactions can form ozone, a gas that is harmful to both human and plant health, as well as secondary organic aerosol particles. Understanding the complex chemistry taking place on the boundaries between urban and rural areas is important for better predicting and developing strategies for improving local and global air quality.

The Taehwa site, located in a mountainous forest, is the perfect location for addressing questions about how human-caused and natural emissions mix.  The site boasts a 130-foot tower that reaches well above the tree line.  Climbing the steps up the tower affords great views of the forest below and allowed us to see up close the air inlets and instrumentation placed at regular intervals along the tower.

Forest tower
The tower at the Taehwa Mountain Forest Research site. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

At the base of the Taehwa tower are several structures filled with a variety of instruments that analyze the air collected at different heights along the tower as well as air collected by inlets at ground level.  These instruments measure different VOCs as well as many other molecules and compounds important for unraveling the complex chemistry occurring at the site. In addition, instruments below the tower also analyze in detail small particles in the atmosphere, counting them and measuring their sizes.  

Research building
Though the outside of this building and its setting look primitive, inside are a suite of sophisticated air quality monitoring instruments. Credit: NASA

In yesterday’s blog, I discussed how the DC-8 flies in spiral patterns to sample the air from near the ground up to 25,000 feet near Taehwa. By flying our KORUS-AQ aircraft near this site, we extend the reach of the air quality measurements from the top of the tower to nearly five miles up in the troposphere.

Aircraft in flight.
NASA’s DC-8 (top center) as seen from the Taehwa Mountain Forest Research tower on May 2 during the first KORUS-AQ science flight. Credit: Saewung Kim, UC Irvine

In addition to air quality and meteorological instruments at the tower, down the hill scientists from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center are measuring ozone above the site with the Goddard Ground-Based Tropospheric Ozone Lidar and with daily launches of balloons carrying instrumentation to measure ozone up into the stratosphere.  The ground-based ozone instrument uses an infrared laser that shines from the top of a trailer up through the lower atmosphere and allows scientists to measure ozone concentrations up to several miles above the ground.  This instrument is similar to the NASA Langley Airborne Differential Absorption Lidar (DIAL) being flown during KORUS-AQ on the DC-8.

Once a day the Goddard team launches a balloon outfitted with instrumentation to measure ozone along with temperature, pressure and humidity.  These ozonesondes collect and transmit the concentration of ozone from the surface all the way up to about 19 miles, when the balloon pops and the ozonesonde falls back to Earth on a small parachute. The team launches an ozonesonde daily and will launch one during every KORUS-AQ flight to provide complementary data of ozone in the atmosphere below and above the altitudes of the planes.

Science instrument rises into the air.
The team from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center launches an ozonesonde into the atmosphere. Behind them is the trailer housing the Goddard Ground-Based Tropospheric Ozone Lidar. Credit: NASA/Steve Cole

After visiting the Taehwa ground site, meeting the students and researchers working there, learning about their instruments, watching an ozonesonde launch into the stratosphere, and climbing up the research tower (which forced me to overcome a slight fear of heights), I was struck by the diversity of people, instruments and platforms (aircraft, ground, balloons, satellites) that have been brought together to try to solve the problem of poor air quality.

A “Clean” Start for First KORUS-AQ Flights

by Emily Schaller / Osan Air Base, Seoul, South Korea /

After years of preparation, on Monday, May 2, the three KORUS-AQ aircraft (NASA B-200, NASA DC-8, and the Hanseo King-Air) took off for their first coordinated science flights over South Korea. More than 50 scientists, pilots and crew from NASA and the Republic of Korea were aboard the three aircraft and flew thousands of miles across the Korean peninsula over the course of eight hours.

Satellite image
Satellite image showing the positions and flight tracks of the three aircraft over the Korean peninsula at 11:30AM Korean Standard Time during the first KORUS-AQ science flights.

The tracks the planes flew were not simple point-A-to-point-B flights. Instead, the scientists designed flight plans that allowed them to sample pollution at many locations, altitudes and times of day. Before every flight, a team of meteorologists and air quality forecasters pour over data from satellites and model outputs to predict the sources, amounts and types of pollution the team may encounter and suggest appropriate flight paths so that the aircraft can best sample this pollution.

The meteorological and pollution conditions on Monday were such that the Korean peninsula was experiencing fairly good air quality. Why bother to fly if our goal is to sample high levels of pollution? This flight provided the team with a great opportunity to set a clean baseline. The relatively clean-air data collected on Monday will be compared to data collected on future pollution-filled flights, allowing the team to understand the full range of conditions on the peninsula.

Using aircraft to study pollution allows scientists to sample the air at multiple altitudes, from near ground level all the way up to about 25,000 feet. One way to do this is by flying ascending and descending spiral patterns as well as flying straight and level legs at several altitudes. We also sample at different times of the day to look at how the chemistry evolves as the day progresses and sunlight drives chemical reactions.

Below is a time-lapse video showing the flight paths of our three aircraft from 8AM- 4PM Korean Standard Time on Monday, May 2:


The DC-8 flight plan on Monday included spiral patterns from about 1000 feet all the way up to 25,000 feet near the Taehwa Mountain research forest ground site. This ground site has sensors and many instruments measuring air quality. The reason we do spirals and have a ground site at this particular location is to better understand how human-caused pollution from Seoul mixes and reacts with the natural emissions from trees in the forest. The DC-8 also flew north and south along the peninsula at constant altitudes to map small particles, ozone and hundreds of other chemical compounds at various altitudes along the peninsula. We repeated the spirals near Taehwa three times (morning, noon and afternoon) and also performed two spirals over the ocean to the southwest of the peninsula.

While the DC-8 and Hanseo King Air flew at a variety of altitudes to sample pollution, the NASA B-200 flew at a much higher altitude (28,000 feet), where it collected remote-sensing data from above, simulating data collected by current and future orbiting satellites.

Unlike commercial aircraft flights where the goal is to get from place to place, the goal of research aircraft flights is to safely collect the best possible science data. This means that the people aboard research aircraft often experience very bumpy flights and g-forces that are not normally encountered on commercial aircraft.

During spirals (which can last for more than 20 minutes), the constant ascending or descending when the aircraft is turning in a circle can cause some people to feel queasy. Flying at low altitudes near the surface where the air is unstable can also make for a very bumpy ride. Those aboard are prepared for these conditions and many take anti-nausea medications or wear anti-nausea patches.

On Monday’s flight, however, those on the DC-8 lucked out – though it was moderately bumpy at times and they completed five spirals, the flight was not nearly as nausea-inducing as other air quality sampling flights some had experienced in the past.

Scientists in airplane.
Don Blake and Stacey Hughes (UC Irvine) operate the Whole Air Sampler (WAS) in flight aboard the DC-8. WAS collects air samples in canisters that are analyzed after the flight for their chemical constituents in the laboratory. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson
Scientist working on airplane.
Jack Dibb (University of New Hampshire) collecting an aerosol particle filter sample from the Soluble Acidic Gases and Aerosol (SAGA) instrument to later analyze in the lab. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

The complicated airborne ballet our aircraft danced over the Korean peninsula yesterday could not have taken place without the cooperation of Korean air traffic control authorities.

Flying spiral maneuvers, rapidly changing altitude and repeating flight paths multiple times is very different from how typical commercial aircraft fly.

Our pilots, navigators and mission management worked closely with local air traffic control both before and during the flights to allow our aircraft safe operation in the busy airspace over the Korean peninsula.

“NASA is enormously appreciative for the incredible support we have received from the Korean Civil Air Traffic and the R.O.K. Air Force Air Traffic controllers [ATC],” said NASA atmospheric scientist Barry Lefer. “Our colleagues at NIER [National Institute of Environmental Research] have spent many hours working with the ATC authorities making our flight operations in Korea possible.”

Planning the Hunt for Science Flights

by Kate Squires / OSAN AIR BASE, SOUTH KOREA /


Jay Al-Saadi of NASA’s Langley Research Center discusses preliminary plans for the NASA DC-8 and B-200 during a forecasting meeting. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

The science equipment is unloaded and jetlag has subsided for the KORUS-AQ team here getting settled in at Osan Air Base. Now the task at hand is to plan where and when the team’s three aircraft will begin gathering actual observations in the air.

Sounds simple, right? Wrong.

Pollution forecasting, air space restrictions, and weather predictions are all major factors that determine conditions for KORUS-AQ science flights that are targeting a range of air quality conditions over and around South Korea.  To further complicate matters, these conditions change constantly. Determining the best of all three conditions requires careful coordination. This coordination happens through daily morning meetings by flight planners, forecasters, and science instrument teams inside a hangar at Osan that serves as the KORUS-AQ’s headquarters.


The forecasting group meets in the hangar to discuss Monday’s flight. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

I attended the first of these meetings on Saturday morning April 30 where the team reviewed the conditions for the first proposed flight on Monday, May 2. The question: would those conditions accommodate the science objectives of KORUS-AQ?

Pollution forecast considerations included looking at:

  • the pollution plume from Seoul and other pollution sources in South Korea like power plants,
  • air and dust inflow over the West Sea and upwind of Seoul
, and
  • biomass burning impacts (wildfires).

NCAR NO2 Model

Model run showing surface NO2 from point sources in Korea. KORUS-AQ observations in combination with these models will lead to better understanding of the factors controlling air quality. Credit: NCAR/Louisa Emmons

Another major requirement of the mission was negotiating with South Korea’s air traffic control authority on designing flights that collect the type of data the scientists need. The aircraft will be flying less than conventional patterns over the South Korean peninsula. For example, the DC-8 will fly spiral patterns over specific ground sites and may fly as low as 1000 ft. above ground level to obtain measurement profiles from different altitudes.

Mission managers, pilots, and principals investigators have spent weeks working with air traffic control to determine flight paths that will achieve science objectives while also keeping the many commercial passengers in busy jetways safe.


Flight planning discussions took place in some unconventional places and times. Here the KORUS-AQ science team meets after hours in the lobby of the Turumi Lodge at Osan Air Base to work out flight plans to submit to the air traffic control authority. Credit: NASA/Kate Squires

As complex as the planning sounds, the team knows how to work together to achieve progress.

“A lot of preparation goes into our daily flight planning meetings. We hold them on the hangar floor so that all of the science team members can participate. Team members scattered across the many  ground sites in South Korea join these meetings online  This ensures that we have access to all considerations that might influence our flight decisions,” said Jim Crawford, lead U.S. scientist for KORUS-AQ.

The weather forecast shows an impending rainstorm early in the week, which could hamper flight efforts. But the team makes the  decision to fly Monday despite the storm.  

“While the conditions Monday are not ideal, these first flights will be difficult to coordinate. Better to give the pilots and scientists a chance to work through and identify difficulties and establish confidence with air traffic control on a marginal day so that we are ready to take advantage of the better sampling days ahead of us,” Crawford said.


Media, Dignitaries Meet KORUS-AQ on the Tarmac

by Emily Schaller and Jane Peterson / OSAN AIR BASE, SOUTH KOREA /

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Reporters board the NASA DC-8 aircraft to talk with researchers about the many instruments in the flying laboratory. (Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson)

On Friday April 29, over 100 guests and media attended the official kickoff of the Korean US Air Quality (KORUS-AQ) field experiment at Osan Air Base near Seoul.  The event included talks about the project and tours of the three KORUS-AQ aircraft: the NASA DC-8, NASA King Air B-200 and the Hanseo King Air B-200. Pilots, navigators, scientists, engineers and technicians answered questions about the science of the mission and the technical aspects of using aircraft to study air quality.

Dignitaries attending the event included Marc Knapper, Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy, President of the National Institute for Environmental Research (NIER) Jin-Won Park, NIER Director General Jihyung Hong and Ministry of the Environment Director General Jung-Kyun Na. About 50 NIER guests also attended to learn about the mission that will be taking place in South Korea over the next six weeks.

You-Deog Hong, Director of the NIER Air Quality Research Division and KORUS-AQ mission scientist Jim Crawford of NASA Langley Research Center gave a presentation about the mission. KORUS-AQ flights are expected to begin as early as Monday, May 2.



Over the next six weeks these aircraft will take to the skies above South Korea. The KORUS-AQ team pose by the three research aircraft, from left to right, the NASA King Air, the NASA DC-8, and Hanseo King Air. (Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson)



Marc Knapper, Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy, tours the inside of the NASA DC-8. (Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson)



Over 30 members of Korean and International media covered the KORUS-AQ media event at Osan Air Base. (Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson)


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Jim Crawford, KORUS-AQ U.S. lead scientist from NASA Langley Research Center talks to invited guests including Marc Knapper, Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy (far left) and Colonel Andrew Hansen, 51st Fighter Wing Commander (second from left).  (Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson)


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Jay Al Saadi (center left) of NASA’s Langley Research Center talks to NIER President Jin-Won Park (far right) next to the NASA King Air B-200 aircraft. (Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson)


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Students from the National Institute for Environmental Research pose for the cellphone with NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory. (Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson)


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Barry Lefer, NASA Tropospheric Chemistry Program Manager from NASA Headquarters, describes air quality instruments to visiting guests onboard the DC-8. (Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson)

Flying into a Natural Air Quality Laboratory

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by Emily Schaller / SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA /

Looking out the window while descending toward Incheon International Airport near Seoul, earlier this week, I couldn’t help but notice the hazy, yellowish brown layer covering the city. For several days before the flight, I had been using various apps, websites and Twitter feeds to track air quality in the megacity. Now there it was, that layer of smog, at the end of a long transpacific flight.

Understanding air pollution in South Korea was the reason that I and over 100 scientists, engineers, pilots, students, and other NASA personnel were flying from around the world to Seoul this week. Our mission: the Korean US Air Quality Study (KORUS-AQ), a collaboration between NASA (where I work) and the Korean National Institute for Environmental Research (NIER).

But why is NASA studying air pollution in South Korea?

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The KORUS-AQ team gathers for the first time inside Hangar 1187 at Osan Air Base in South Korea on April 28. (Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson)

In order to understand what makes this country an ideal natural laboratory for air quality studies, you need to understand what contributes to poor air quality around the world. Two of the main factors are particle pollution and ozone gas.

Particle pollution is made up of small particles and liquid droplets suspended in the air. These airborne particles can form in a variety of ways. They include smoke from fires and dust as well as particles formed by emissions from cars, power plants and other industrial activities. Breathing in these small particles allows them to enter the lungs where they can cause damage, including health effects such as heart and lung disease and even lead to premature death.

Ozone gas is another big air quality concern. While ozone gas located high in the stratosphere protects us from the sun’s harmful UV rays, pollution from cars and other human emissions near ground level can cause chemical reactions that lead to ozone formation near the surface. Breathing in high levels of ozone is also bad for human health, causing lung diseases and health impacts on sensitive populations such as children, the elderly and people with asthma. Peak ozone in Korea occurs between April and June.

Since Seoul is located on a peninsula, the metropolitan area and the pollution produced here are separated from other sources of emissions. In addition, Seoul’s human-produced emissions are concentrated in its urban areas but are surrounded by more rural agricultural areas. The contrast between urban and rural zones on the peninsula allow scientists to study and differentiate human and naturally-produced emissions and better understand how they interact chemically.  Understanding the chemical reactions between urban and agricultural emissions is critical extremely important for improving models that forecast air quality.

In addition to locally-produced pollution, Seoul is downwind of pollution blowing into the country from far away. Megacity pollution, smoke from seasonal fires, and desert dust all blow onto the Korean Peninsula from other parts of East Asia. KORUS-AQ research aircraft will fly routes off the west coast of South Korea, over South Korea, and off the east coast to sample air moving to and from the Korean Peninsula.  Data collected along these flight paths will allow scientists to better understand how local and distant pollution interacts chemically over the Korean peninsula. April-June is the period of strongest influence from upwind pollution sources blown into the country, including dust outbreaks and biomass burning.

KORUS-AQ also benefits from the Korean Geostationary Ocean Color Imager (GOCI) satellite, now in orbit for over five years, providing hourly particulate matter observations over Asia. The airborne measurements from KORUS-AQ provide a unique opportunity to check the accuracy of this geostationary air quality satellite. The data will also aid development of new satellites that NASA and South Korea plan to launch in the next few years. The Korean NIER Geostationary Environment Monitoring Spectrometer (GEMS) and NASA’s Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO) instruments will provide unprecedented satellite observations of air quality over East Asia and North America, respectively.

Despite regulatory efforts aimed at curbing emissions over the past ten years, Seoul frequently experiences poor air quality from both ozone and particulate matter. Air quality in Seoul can be so bad at times that residents are urged to avoid exercising outdoors, wear masks when outdoors, or even avoid going outside entirely during extremely bad air quality days.

The colorful lights on the top of N Seoul Tower – the highest point in the city   alert Seoul residents to the amount of fine particle pollution in the air they are breathing. At a certain time of day, if the lights on the tower are blue it means Seoul is experiencing good air quality (less than 45 micrograms of fine dust per cubic meter of air) indicating to residents that it is safe to walk, play, or exercise outdoors. The air quality information is tweeted automatically every hour by @yellowdust.

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Anything below 45 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter is considered good air quality. Seoul’s particulate matter on April 24 spiked to nearly 8 times that amount.

Just a few days before my flight to Seoul, @yellowdust showed a rapid spike in bad air quality in the city. Data geek that I am, I couldn’t help but plot recent @yellowdust data (see plot above). I was amazed by the rapid spike from relatively good to extremely hazardous air quality in less than a day.

Taking both ozone and particulate matter into account, the Plume Labs app (below) shows that Seoul is currently experiencing some of its worst air quality of the year so far. It is no accident that NASA is here in South Korea now to experience it. The KORUS-AQ mission planners specifically picked this time of year so that the instruments on our airplanes could measure Seoul air quality at its worst. In the future, this information will be used to help address air quality problems here and around the world.

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A Couple with Real Atmospheric Chemistry

Husband and wife scientists
Jeong-Hoo Park (right) and Kyung-Eun Min outside NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory. Credit: NASA / Kate Squires

by Kate Squires / PALMDALE, CALIFORNIA /

They met at an air quality-monitoring site near downtown Seoul over a decade ago. Now the husband-and-wife team of atmospheric chemists are working together on the KORUS-AQ field experiment that gets underway this week in South Korea. Jeong-Hoo Park is the lead Korean scientist for KORUS-AQ and senior researcher at the National Institute for Environmental Research in Seoul. Kyung-Eun Min, assistant professor at the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, leads the K-ACES instrument team participating in KORUS-AQ. We caught up with the couple last week at the Armstrong Flight Research Center Hangar 703 in Palmdale as they checked out instruments being installed on NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory.

What are the big goals of the KORUS-AQ mission?

Jeong-Hoo Park: The first is to inventory South Korea’s emissions. The second is to study the mechanisms that control air pollution in Korea and then create an efficient strategy to improve air quality using policy. The third goal is to improve the country’s air quality forecasting system. The last is to validate sensors and algorithms for a satellite called Geostationary Environmental Monitoring Spectrometer (GEMS) that will monitor air quality from space after it launches in 2019. The satellite will be identical to NASA’s planned Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO).

Can you describe a particularly bad air quality day that you’ve experienced while in South Korea?

Kyung-Eun Min: I was living in California during my PhD program and went back to visit my mom in South Korea during May. I was hanging out with family, and I looked at the sky and noticed it was gray. It was like that all day long. I said to my mom, “Oh it looks like it’s going to rain soon, but it’s not going to rain.” My mom responded. “No, it’s very sunny today! It’s sky blue!” I said, “No, can’t you see that it’s overcast and gray?” That was the first time I ever realized the daily air quality contrast between Korea and the U.S.

Does South Korea have a warning system to alert its citizens of a bad air quality day?

KEM: When I was in graduate school they only had an alert warning for Asian dust events. These days there is also a pollution forecasting and alert system.

JHP: Yes, we have an air quality forecasting system that is managed by the National Environmental Institute of Research and gives a next-day forecast to the public every day via the news networks. The system warns the public so that they can be better prepared and wear a mask if needed.

Jeong-Hoo, how did you get involved and eventually co-lead the KORUS-AQ mission?

JHP: Before working on KORUS-AQ, I worked at National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. One day I heard about the mission there and was intrigued, so I decided to move back to Korea to manage the mission about a year and a half ago.

Scientist inspecting instrument
Jeong-Hoo Park tests an air intake probe on the Proton-transfer-reaction mass spectrometer instrument during DC-8 instrument installation at Palmdale. Credit: NASA / Brian Soukup

What has been the most challenging part of planning the KORUS-AQ mission? The most rewarding?

JHP: The most challenging part of planning was gaining consensus between all of the different organizations. For example, I had to convince the Air Force and related organizations for support of the project.

KEM: The most rewarding part is the opportunity to have the mission take place in South Korea. We have never had such a large and complex mission in our country. It is also rewarding to share this opportunity with our students and let them see how we collaborate and how important our work is.

What first got you interested in this area of research?

JHP: When I was an undergraduate student, I took an air pollution class. I saw that there were a few chemical reactions with some equations that expressed a phenomenon in the air and I was very interested in that because it actually expressed things that are invisible to us. I was so excited and I jumped right into it.

KEM: I’ve always liked atmospheric research because it deals with a global issue. Air doesn’t have any social borders. If something major happens to the air in one country, it crosses to other countries so easily and quickly.

Where did you go to school?

JHP: I went to Yeungnam University in Korea for my undergraduate degree and went to Korea University to study atmospheric chemistry. I went abroad to the United States to the University of California, Berkeley and graduated with my PhD from the Environmental Science Policy and Management Department.

KEM: I went to Korea University for both my bachelors and masters science programs in atmospheric chemistry. I went on to UC Berkeley for my PhD and did postdoctoral work at NOAA.

Did you meet at UC Berkeley?


JHP: We met before.

KEM: In a field mission in Korea.

JHP: Fourteen years ago, we met at the field site, which is the same as one of the KORUS-AQ ground sites.

KEM: We met when we were in different groups at the Olympic National Park, which was a ground site for another air quality field study but also one for KORUS-AQ. We started to date each other secretly. Then we ended up pursuing our PhDs together at UC Berkeley. So there was some luck to it, too.

Is there any professional competition between you as husband and wife?

JHP: Well, I will say that we are kind of a synergetic couple because the measurements from our instruments are complementary.

KEM: People think we are a good couple so we are good colleagues, and usually we are. When I did nitrogen oxide studies in graduate school, he was studying volatile organic compounds (VOC). They are good ingredients for trying to understand ozone pollution and complex chemistry, and we collaborated well during that time. Now I’m starting to look at oxygenated VOC’s, so I’m very eager to get his data and analyze it. Sometimes we sit down to have a discussion about the data and come to a point where we have slightly different perspectives, so then we argue sometimes.

BOTH: [Laughing]

JHP: There is no competition.

Scientist inspects instrument
Kyung-Eun Min works to make sure the K-ACES instrument is functioning properly before a test flight. Credit: NASA / Kate Squires

Do you typically talk about science at home around the dinner table?

KEM: Some couples that work in the same field will not talk about work at home, but we are not like that. We discuss whatever we want. Sometimes it’s about the science. Sometimes it’s about personal life.

JHP: One time we had lunch with a friend. We were discussing general things about life, but then the conversation turned into us having a deep discussion about science. Our friend said, “Why do you talk about science in the middle of lunch? You both are nerdy!”

Do you have any children?

KEM: We have one son, who is seven months old.

Do you want your son to go into the air quality research field?

KEM: Interesting question. We’ve talked about it a lot. In Korean culture, parents expect a lot of their offspring. If he chose atmospheric science as his field of interest then we would probably be very happy, but we don’t want to pressure him into going that direction.

JHP: I agree. I want him to do anything he wants to do.

How will this research help people today and people in the future?

JHP: I hope that the success of the KORUS-AQ mission will provide data that will lead to better emission policies and the best air quality for the next generation, including my son. I hope it will also help further develop the Korean atmospheric research community and push us towards doing more air quality research studies.