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 /

aDSC_6598 (1)

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)


aVIPtour_Crawford_group1 (1)

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)


aVIPtour_AlSadi (1) (1)

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)


DSC_6597 (2)

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


aVIPtour_Lefer (1)

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

KOREA image 1

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?

KOREA image 2

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.

KOREA image 3

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.

KOREA image 4



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.

A Conversation with Jim Crawford: The Career Path to Seoul

Jim Crawford

by Denise Lineberry / HAMPTON, VIRGINIA /

A few days before leaving for South Korea and the start of the Korea U.S.-Air Quality study (KORUS-AQ) field campaign, lead U.S. project scientist Jim Crawford, 52, from NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, answered a few questions about the mission and his career studying air quality around the world.

How long have you been involved in air quality work?

I have been conducting research in atmospheric chemistry for just over 25 years, but much of my early work was on the remote atmosphere. My focus on air quality and conditions in urban areas has only been over the last five years.

What first got you interested in this area of research?

I entered graduate school at Georgia Tech in 1991 after five years of active duty in the U.S. Army.  To be honest, I was looking for something new and interesting to pursue, and atmospheric science was what caught my eye in the college catalog. I have not regretted what may seem like a whimsical decision.

Can you describe a particularly bad air quality day that you’ve experienced?

Poor air quality is not always obvious to the naked eye, but during a visit to Beijing in 2012, the conditions were so bad that you could not see more than a block down the street. I do not have any allergies, so I am not particularly susceptible to respiratory problems. Even so, I got sick on that trip, and I wonder how much the poor air quality contributed.

How does KORUS-AQ compare to other air quality projects you’ve worked on?

I have been involved in many large field experiments, and KORUS-AQ certainly belongs in that category. I have also experienced a lot of complexity over the years. While the flights in Korea will not be the most complex that I have ever planned, the airspace over Korea is quite challenging to navigate and the international coordination has gone far beyond anything we have attempted in the past.

Where else in the world have you done air quality field work?

I have participated in research flights all over the world and in many different types of aircraft. Much of my early career was spent working on airborne studies over the remote North and South Pacific and along the Asian Pacific Rim, looking at long-range transport of pollution. I have also participated in aircraft flights over Antarctica as well as the Arctic, so my experience has spanned the globe. It is only in recent years that I have become engaged in flights over populated areas where human emissions and poor air quality occur.

What has been for you the most challenging part of planning KORUS-AQ?

The international coordination and negotiation of flight permissions has been a tremendous challenge in the preparation for KORUS-AQ. Never before have we worked so closely with colleagues in another country, nor have we attempted to fly in such busy airspace within the borders of another nation. We’ve built enduring relationships. Airborne observations are sparse, and KORUS-AQ will expand our capability as an international community, leading to better quality and coverage for atmospheric observations to understand air quality, which has become a problem of hemispheric scale.

How do you hope your work will benefit people today or in the next generation?

Our work brings attention to the impacts of human activity on Earth. For today, people need reliable forecasts of air quality, and for tomorrow, they need effective policies to improve air quality. Hopefully, this work adds to the motivation to continue developing and transitioning to energy sources that are free of harmful emissions to the atmosphere. These emissions are the root cause of both poor air quality, which is a short-term impact, and climate change, which is a long-term challenge.



Preparing for Air Quality Airborne Science

DC-8 Aircraft
NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory is based at Armstrong Flight Research Center Hangar 703 in Palmdale, California. Credit: NSERC/Jane Peterson


There are many layers to orchestrating a mission as complex as the Korean U.S. Air Quality (KORUS-AQ) study, which gets underway next week in South Korea. Preparing the aircraft and science instruments to come together as one is just a single layer, but it’s an extremely important one for ensuring a safe and successful mission.

KORUS-AQ, a joint field campaign by NASA and South Korea’s National Institute of Environmental Research, will combine observations from aircraft, satellites, ships and ground stations to assess air quality across urban, rural and coastal areas of South Korea. These data will help shape the development of the next-generation system of space- and ground-based sensors for air quality monitoring and forecasting.

   Credit: NASA / Brian Soukup

NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory looks like a normal passenger jet, but it’s far from it. The highly modified aircraft has removable seats, ports and windows. The onboard electronics have also been modified to support a variety of instruments. Despite the many “holes” in the aircraft, the structure is highly stable.

Instrument integration work began a month prior on March 21 when the instruments were shipped to the science lab at Armstrong Flight Research Center’s Hangar 703 in Palmdale. Some of the instruments arrived in pieces and had to be built from the ground up before they were installed. Others arrived fully assembled and only needed to go through power and other system checks before they were ready for installation.

Before loading instruments into the plane, DC-8 quality inspector Scott Silver inspected each of the instruments for “air worthiness” in the science lab. He made sure that each instrument did not emit sparks or smoke or create other hazards that could potentially cause problems during flight.

“Once the instrument is on the plane, it’s not coming off. But we need to make sure it’s safe before we even get to that point,” Silver said.

While the scientists made sure their instruments were functional, aircraft mechanics removed windows on the aircraft and installed a wide variety of air intake probes.  They also installed optical ports into the top and bottom of the plane for laser sensors. After port installation was done, the aircraft looked somewhat like a porcupine.

DC-8 aircraft exterior
Air intake probes protrude from NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory in place of normal window ports for the Korean U.S. Air Quality (KORUS-AQ) mission. Credit: NASA / Carla Thomas

Each instrument was then rolled out of the science lab and placed on a large scale to be weighed for aircraft weight and balance requirements. From there, each instrument was loaded onto a lift and carried up to the aft doors of the aircraft.

This part was tricky. Cabin space is limited and the payload of 26 instruments is large compared to most DC-8 missions. So instruments had to be loaded in a specific order, starting with the instruments located at the front of the plane. 

Man fixing science equipment
Alan Fried, University of Colorado Boulder, makes an adjustment to the intake for the Compact Atmospheric Multispecies Spectrometer (CAMS) instrument, which will measure formaldehyde and ethane in the atmosphere over South Korea. Credit: NASA / Anna Kelley

Mechanics, avionic techs, data system engineers, and experimenters worked side-by-side to install each instrument without causing delays to the 10–20 instruments in the queue behind them. The experimenters were then free to make sure their instruments were working and communicating with the onboard data system.

After installation, the aircraft was moved outside of the hangar to allow the experimenters to calibrate the instruments. The aircraft was then turned back over to the DC-8 crew who performed necessary aircraft maintenance checks on the engines and cabin pressure.

Blue print plans.
The blueprint plans for integrating the 26 science instruments look daunting, but NASA’s DC-8 crew has a method to the madness. Credit: NASA

“Our primary job at NASA Armstrong is to make sure that all of the experimenters onboard are safe and can focus on collecting as much data as possible,” DC-8 crew chief Corry Rung said.

The final checks happened throughout several short flights. The first on April 15, called a “shake flight,” ensured that none of the instrument hardware was loose and that they all functioned correctly. The second two flights on April 18 and 22 were devoted to testing the science instruments themselves. The DC-8 is slated to leave California for Osan Air Base on April 26.

Airplane cockpit.
Inside the cockpit of the DC-8 during the April 21 science check flight. Left seat pilot, Dick Ewers; right seat pilot, Dave Fedors; and flight engineer Matt Pinsch. Credit: NASA / Carla Thomas

Meanwhile across the country at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the UC-12B King Air was going through a similar integration process. However, because the King Air has a smaller fuel tank and payload capacity, the aircraft cannot make the transit flight across the Pacific with all of the instruments on board.  

After the science instruments were installed, fitted and checked, they were quickly uninstalled and packed into shipping boxes headed to Osan Air Base. The aircraft was then outfitted with large fuel bladders that will help the aircraft to make the long transit flight. The fuel bladders will be stored inside the aircraft fuselage. Once the King Air aircraft arrives, the crew will reintegrate the science instruments just before the field campaign begins.

Aircraft science instruments
Johnathan Hair, NASA Langley Research Center, tests the DIAL UV instrument during a science check flight. DIAL UV measures ozone and also simultaneously measures aerosols and clouds. Credit: NASA / Carla Thomas

The King Air departed Langley Research Center on April 18 and will make stops at Ames Research Center in California, Anchorage, Alaska, Adak Island (Aleutian Islands) and Kadena Air Base in Japan. The aircraft is scheduled to arrive at its destination at Osan Air Base on April 25.


Into the Final Turn: From Cold to Colder

Aircraft takes off from runway
NASA’s G-III, outfitted with the GLISTIN-A interferometry radar on the bottom of the fuselage, takes off from Keflavik, Iceland on the morning of March 28, 2016, on its way to map Greenland glaciers and land in Thule, Greenland.

by Patrick Lynch / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

On Monday morning, the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) team left the chill of Keflavik (32 degrees Fahrenheit but with a relentless, stinging wind) for the more ruthless cold of -8 degrees Fahrenheit in Thule, Greenland.

Before landing, the seven-person team will fly over coastline near Thule today to map glaciers where they meet the sea. After today, the team will make three more science flights to complete mapping the entire Greenland coastline – this information about the heights of hundreds of glaciers will form the baseline for the next five years of study, providing new insights into the ice sheet’s contribution to sea level rise.

Greenland map
NASA’s Airborne Science Program flight tracker shows the G-III on its way from Keflavik to Thule on March 28. Track all NASA Earth science flights with the flight tracker here:
The OMG team in Keflavik (from left): mechanics Angel Vazquezz and Mike Brown, Johnson Space Center; radar engineers Tim Miller and Ron Muellerschoen, Jet Propulsion Laboratory; pilot Dick Clark, Johnson Space Center; flight crew Rocky Smith, Johnson Space Center; and pilot Tom Parent, Johnson Space Center.