Sailing to Mars via Earth’s Newest Landmass

Intrepid students and SEA assistant scientists deploy the pack rafts and side-scan sonar in the crater lake at HTHH.
Intrepid students and SEA assistant scientists deploy the pack rafts and side-scan sonar in the crater lake at HTHH. Credit: SEA

by Kerry Whittaker, Chief Scientist aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans / KINGDOM OF TONGA /

On September 27th the SSV Robert C. Seamans departed Pago Pago Harbor, American Samoa, bound for Earth’s newest landmass, located in the Kingdom of Tonga. The ship is a Sea Education Association student sailing and oceanographic vessel with 40 souls on board: student and professional crew, faculty, a visiting scientist from NASA, and an observer from the Tongan Ministry of the Environment. The ship’s destination: a new landmass formed in 2015 in an explosive volcanic eruption. The eruption deposited a pile of ash, pumice, and lava ‘bombs,’ building up a new landmass over the course of a month connecting the two small, uninhabited islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai.  Perhaps the King of Tonga is scheming up a name for this new landmass, but for now, we’ll refer to it as HTHH.

Sea Education Association has been sailing to remote ocean regions, conducting oceanographic research, and involving students in sail training and scientific exploration for over 40 years.  Our two 134-foot sailing tall-ships are each fully equipped with an oceanographic research laboratory and field sampling technology geared towards studying the chemistry, geology, physics, and biology of the ocean from the surface to deep ocean habitats.  Both ships are designated Sailing School Vessels (SSV), which means that students sail as crew, not as passengers.  The SSV Corwth Cramer operates in the Atlantic Ocean, and the SSV Robert C. Seamans in the Pacific.

Since the formation of HTHH in 2015, NASA has been keenly interested in this landmass as a rare opportunity to examine pathways of land formation and erosion in the time of 21st century remote sensing and scientific technology. HTHH is the first island formed on Earth since the availability of sub-meter resolution satellites including imaging radar and geodetic lidar altimetry. The island has persisted longer than expected, sparking
questions of the erosion dynamics behind its longevity and mechanical stability. NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is most interested in HTHH, as it offers a proxy for understanding important geologic dynamics on the red planet associated with water-based erosion.  One might even consider the island of HTHH “Mars on Earth.”

Map showing the western Pacific with Australia and the Kingdom of Tonga.
Map showing the western Pacific with Australia to the left and the Kingdom of Tonga highlighted in red.

We’ve now arrived here at HTHH, aboard the Robert C. Seamans, which is nimble enough to get close to the island and involve students in this work in collaboration with the Kingdom of Tonga and with our partners at NASA.

As Chief Scientist for the SSV Robert C. Seamans throughout this mission, I have the distinct pleasure of wearing many hats (educator, scientist, shipmate, and my salty blue baseball hat), and facilitating the scientific and educational elements of this work.  As we sailed south from Vava’u, the island emerged from the horizon, otherworldly, wild, and pristine. For months and months, we had planned for this moment. Now, our much-discussed mission fully materialized: a dark grey primordial-looking volcano striped with canyons, dark black saddles leading to green-tufted islands to the East and the West.

We have twenty-six eager college students as integral parts of our scientific mission: to better understand processes of land formation on Earth, so that we might understand it on other planets (e.g. Mars). We’ll conduct our research in partnership with NASA and with the Kingdom of Tonga. As an educator, this experience is a dream.  I’m able to guide students through the process of discovery-to invite them to be scientists, to be stewards of this place, and communicators of our work. To show them the messy, complicated, joyous process of fieldwork. These students are immersed in the pure logistics of it all – of getting people from boat to island (don’t forget the sunblock, the radios, and make sure the datasheets are waterproof!). The need to McGuyver.  The need to open our eyes and question everything we see. I’m not lecturing in front of an undergraduate chemistry bench or over a microscope mimicking the scientific process.  Instead, I’m trudging through tiny volcanic black pebbles through the wind and rain with students trailing behind, wearing bright yellow foulie jackets and rain boots. I can’t help but feel a bit like Miss Frizzle.

We’re headed to the island’s crater lake to map its depth and shape for the first time using pack rafts and a portable sonar device. We’ve wound up and through the canyons lining the volcano’s steep walls, loose volcanic ash towering 30-50 feet above us, documenting and hypothesizing about the rocks and a suspicious white ooze coming from a distinct layer between ash and chunks of basalt.  We’re asking questions, using the human tools of our eyes and senses. We’re collecting data that might help to answer those questions with equipment we’ve personally lugged through force 6 winds in five or so small boat runs back and forth from island to ship throughout the morning. The equipment includes an ROV, two drones, highly sensitive GPS devices, datasheets, trash bags, sonar equipment and pack rafts, all to be deployed by student teams throughout the day, all to be trudged through the tiny black pebbles to the crater lake, the crater rim, the raucous wind-exposed south side beach, and the island’s saddles.  Tomorrow, we’ll test the newest rumor yet (although currently unsubstantiated) – Grace stuck her feet deep in the silt at the crater lake, and it was WARM down there. We’re picking up marine debris (because yes, of course, despite being the newest landmass on Earth, HTHH is covered with plastic trash).

The greatest delight for me, beyond the science and the adventure, is inviting students to engage as integral members in this scientific (and very human) process of discovery.  I am so excited to share this experience on HTHH with this eager group of SEA students.  I’m thrilled to be collaborating with NASA, our visiting scientist Dan Slayback, and our Tongan observer and partners in the Tongan Ministry of the Environment. I’m so fortunate to be working alongside an amazing team of professional crew (assistant scientists, engineers, steward, and mates) sailing aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, without whom this work would not be possible.  I’m also endlessly grateful to my co-faculty, Captain and Chief Anthropologist, aboard as masters of our educational and sailing program.  And we’re excited to share our experience with you! Please follow along for the next few days as we accomplish this most exciting mission here at HTHH, Mars on Earth.

On this expedition to the Kingdom of Tonga, NASA is partnering with the Tongan Ministry of the Environment and the Sea Education Association, an internationally recognized leader in field-based environmental education at sea. This entry is cross-posted from SEA’s blog with permission.

NASA Rock Stars

Video Credits: NASA/Rafael Luis Mendez Peña


NASA airborne scientists, engineers and pilots have exciting jobs studying and exploring Earth, but one thing that is not typically part of the job description is getting treated like a famous celebrity.  However, for the past three weeks, signing autographs and taking selfies with hundreds of people has been the new norm for members of the NASA CAMP2Ex team when visiting schools here in the Philippines.

For the past four weeks, our NASA team of scientists, engineers, and pilots have been conducting science flights studying clouds and pollution from the Philippines as part of the Cloud, Aerosol and Monsoon Processes Philippines Experiment (CAMP2Ex), based at Clark Airport in Central Luzon.

We are fortunate that Philippine Science High School Central Luzon campus (PSHS-CLC) is less than a mile away from where our aircraft are currently based at Clark Airport. Campus Director Theresa Diaz has welcomed our NASA team seven times into her school over the past three weeks.  Students and teachers from across the Philippines have also traveled to PSHS-CLC to see our NASA presentations and interact directly with our scientists, engineers and pilots.

NASA’s CAMP2Ex team (center), poses with 8th grade students and teachers at the Philippine Science High School Central Luzon Campus. Students and teachers learned about NASA Earth Science and the goals of the CAMP2Ex mission in the Philippines. Credits: PSHS-CLC/Neil Patiag and Francesca Manalang

In addition to presenting at PSHS-CLC, we have also traveled to present at the Philippine Science High School Main Campus in Quezon City, the Quezon City Experience Museum, Paranaque Science High School in Metro Manila and Ateneo de Davao University in Mindanao.

The way our team has been received at schools across the Philippines demonstrates the incredible Filipino hospitality as well as NASA’s global reach. For example, upon arrival to the Paranaque Science High School in metro Manila, our team received a welcome from the school marching band, a program of dancing and singing, as well as paper medals placed around our necks. After our presentation, we dined with the principal and other teachers on a delicious meal and all received certificates of appreciation as well as more food and gifts to take home with us. At most presentations, students also asked for our autographs and to pose with us for selfies. We are not used to such Rock Star treatment!

In coordinating outreach to local schools, we partnered with the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program. GLOBE, sponsored by NASA and supported by NOAA, NSF, and the Department of State, is a worldwide network of schools where students make observations of their environment and upload those observations to an online database.  Citizen scientists can also participate via the free GLOBE Observer app. This long-term, world-wide data is publicly available and can be accessed by students and teachers at other GLOBE schools. It is also used by NASA scientists and others for Earth science research, including ground-truthing of satellite data. The GLOBE Program began in 1995; the Philippines joined in 1999 and has a very active program.  After many of our presentations, GLOBE Philippines Country Coordinator Rod Allan De Lara and Assistant Coordinator Joan Callope gave presentations about GLOBE and led students in executing GLOBE observation protocols relevant to our airborne science program mission here in the Philippines.

Eighth graders at Philippine Science High School Central Luzon Campus perform GLOBE cloud (right) and mosquito (left) protocols after a lecture from the NASA CAMP2Ex team on Sept. 9, 2019. Credits: NASA/Emily Schaller

In total, we gave twelve presentations that reached over 1500 students in 39 different schools. (Many students traveled from great distances across the Philippines to see our presentations.) During many school visits, we also connected in real-time to our scientists flying aboard our aircraft via a live chatting application. Students were able to ask questions directly to people flying aboard our airplanes using the NASA Mission Tools Suite for Education (MTSE) website.

Finally, we also brought students and teachers into our hangar at Clark Airport three times to see our aircraft close-up and to interact directly with our scientists, engineers and pilots. We hope our presentations, chats and tours have inspired the next generation of Filipinos to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Students and teachers from Batasan Hills High School and Bagong Silangan High School pose by the NASA P-3B aircraft after a tour of CAMP2Ex headquarters at Clark International Airport, Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines on Sept. 14, 2019. Credits: NASA/Monica Vazquez Gonzalez
NASA Pilot Brian Bernth talks to Filipino students and teachers next to the NASA P-3B aircraft at Clark International Airport, Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines. Credits: NASA/Monica Vazquez Gonzalez

Though our time in the Philippines is coming to a close shortly, we will never forget the students and teachers we met and the warm Filipino welcome we received everywhere we visited. Salamat (thank you) to all of the Filipino teachers and students who welcomed our NASA team so warmly.

Even When Storm Clouds Gather, Our Next Generation of Scientists Shines Bright

Emilio Gozo from the Manila Observatory provides a weather forecast for an upcoming CAMP2Ex flight. Credits: NASA/Samson Reiny


There’s a lot to get excited about on an airborne science campaign like the Cloud, Aerosol, and Monsoon Processes Philippines Experiment (CAMP2Ex). From watching data stream in from instruments observing fire smoke that had never been sampled in detail, to stunning imagery of the skies captured during flight, there are more highs to be had than can be counted.

Students with the Manila Observatory work on weather forecasts to guide flight plans for NASA’s P-3B and the Learjet. Here is the flight plan for Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, when the P-3B captured smoke in the Sulu Sea that had drifted north from peat fires in Borneo.

But, for me, the pinnacle of the campaign is the people. CAMP2Ex involves collaborators from government agencies and universities across the United States, the Philippines, Japan, and Europe all working together to better understand fundamental processes between clouds and aerosols that drive climate and weather across the globe. And, perhaps most reassuringly for our collective future, the next generation of scientists is also very actively involved in both the planning and execution of the campaign.

Students and early-career collaborators from the Manila Observatory, a key partner in CAMP2Ex, share what they’ve been up to and where they may go from here.

Shane Visaga. Credits: NASA/Monica Vazquez Gonzalez

Shane Visaga

How are you involved in CAMP2Ex? What have you learned from this experience so far?

We’re working the forecasts for this airborne campaign, which is a first for us.

As a student from the climate systems group, we’ve mainly worked with climate models. Modeling mostly confines us to working on our desks. Here at CAMP2Ex, our forecasting job goes beyond the books. It’s putting what we study to task.

How does your area of academic interest intersect with the objectives of the campaign?

I’m working on my master’s in atmospheric science at Ateneo [de Manila University], and for my thesis with the Manila Observatory I’m looking at the effects that urban cities have on the vertical mixing of aerosols, heat, and moisture over what we call the boundary layer. Manila used to be a mix of rural and urban areas, but now that we’ve altered that landscape, I’m looking into how those changes have affected our local weather.

A key area of interest for me in particular is urban pollution. There’s an instrument called a lidar. We have one ground lidar at the Manila Observatory and another on the NASA P-3B. So what I’m trying to get from this campaign are the comparisons of the measurements, specifically over Manila, since the plane can give you spatial variability as it passes other surfaces such as coastal or rural areas. I’m hoping to see the difference of that vertical mixing, not just the air flow but also the heat and moisture, which drives the atmospheric instability and leads to thunderstorms.

What is the most valuable part of this experience so far?

We are very thankful to our mentors Dr. Gemma Narisma, Dr. James Simpas, and Dr. Obie Cambaliza for bringing us to CAMP2Ex and trusting us that we can handle this kind of high-pressure environment. Secondly, I’m thankful for the openness of the scientists, specifically Bob Holz and Ralph Kuehn from University of Wisconsin for letting me do the initial analysis for the convective boundary layer height for the HSRL [High Spectral Resolution Lidar]. I’m also thankful to Jeff [Reid] for how he’s pushed us to be assertive and to be a part of the flight planning and mission management.

What are your goals following the campaign?

I’m really hoping to get a science visit to one of the institutions and really see their work environment and hopefully bring that experience back to the Manila Observatory, because seeing how fast they work after every flight and how they go about their initial analysis, that’s something we can bring back to the Philippines and the research that we do.


Kevin Henson. Credits: NASA/Monica Vazquez Gonzalez

Kevin Henson

How are you involved in CAMP2Ex? What have you learned from this experience so far?

At the Manila Observatory, we don’t do a lot of weather forecasting. This is the first time that we’re heavily involved in it, especially for an airborne campaign. So that’s primarily my role: being a part of the forecasting group and planning where the flights will go and locating where the best areas to do the science are.

On the side, I’m also doing research on the Manila plume, which is essentially the pollution coming from Manila. I’m trying to find out where it’s being transported, especially in relation to the local terrain and meteorology.

How does your area of academic interest intersect with the objectives of the campaign?

My main research area for CAMP2Ex is modeling pollution transport, both from local sources, mainly metro Manila, and what’s coming into the Philippines, as we saw a few days ago with the smoke from Indonesia. So I’ve mostly been modeling these things, but to see it actually firsthand through airplane observations has been eye-opening.

What is the most valuable part of this experience so far?

This experience is a dream come true for me. I’ve always been a NASA fan since I was younger, and I have always been inspired to do science because of all the things I’ve seen NASA do and accomplish. Coming into this campaign,  I’ve only just read the papers of the different scientists, but now I’m having actual face-to-face conversations with them. Understanding their thought processes has been very enlightening. I get to see how they develop their science questions and hypotheses and how they analyze data. That’s really one of the biggest takeaways for me—learning from these seasoned scientists.

What are your goals following the campaign?

In the long term, I’m interested in looking at aerosol and cloud interactions. But before you can even go there you really have to know where the pollution is going, which means making sure your models are getting the transport right. That’s the baseline that you work with before you proceed with any further investigation, and that’s part of what we’re doing here at CAMP2Ex.


Angela Magnaye. Credits: NASA/Monica Vazquez Gonzalez

Angela Magnaye

How are you involved in CAMP2Ex? What have you learned from this experience so far?

My role is forecasting, and I’ve also been doing some model validations, which is one of my interests because I do climate modeling at the Manila Observatory-Regional Climate Systems Laboratory. I’m also interested in land-sea temperature contrast as part of my research for CAMP2Ex.

This is a very different experience for me. The only time I have done anything like this was in 2017 for the pre-PISTON [Propagation of Intra-Seasonal Tropical Oscillations] campaign, which was not an airborne campaign but a research vessel campaign in the northwest Luzon coast.

How does your area of academic interest intersect with the objectives of the campaign?

I’ve been studying a lot of air-sea interactions with climate models for my master’s degree in atmospheric science in the Ateneo, and I’m here to help with the validation of those models. With the data acquired from the Sally Ride and the NASA P-3, we’ll have more information on how the air and sea interact and affect convection, cloud formation, and precipitation, and that’s very important for the models, especially when we do long-term runs. That can help us a lot.

What is the most valuable part of this experience so far?

In the forecasting team, we are particularly grateful for Ed Fukada, lead forecaster of this campaign because of his decades of expertise in weather and typhoon forecasting. Also, for me, it’s the collaboration with international scientists. We don’t get this chance very often, and it’s very valuable for the students to be interacting with experts in the field. We get to consult with them to gain more insights into our own work, and at the same time, we also teach them more about our region, because the meteorology in the tropics is very different. So maybe our insights might help them with their analysis as well.

What are your goals following the campaign?

I want to pursue Ph.D. studies abroad and then come back to the Philippines. It’s important to get insights and expertise from scientists around the world and then hopefully bring that back here so that we can have more capacity building here I the Philippines and have more scientists in the Philippines as well.


Emilio Gozo. Credits: NASA/Monica Vazquez Gonzalez

Emilio Gozo

How are you involved in CAMP2Ex? What have you learned from this experience so far?

Right now, I’m part of the microphysics team of the Manila Observatory, and we’re trying to investigate why rainfall in the models is usually overestimated. Somehow, cloud particles in the tropics, especially in the Philippines, are different from those in the mid-latitudes. A hypothesis for the difference is the pollution coming from China and Borneo. Pollution acts as seeds for clouds and it affects rainfall amounts. So we’re trying to see from this mission how the structure and content of clouds are different in this region.

How does your area of academic interest intersect with the objectives of the campaign?

I just finished my master’s degree in atmospheric science. My research now is centered on the effect that changes in urban land cover have on the amount of rainfall. For this campaign it’s a little different, as we’re looking at how cloud structures change, so now we’re incorporating pollution as it relates to the aerosol content in clouds.

What is the most valuable part of this experience so far?

So far, everything is pretty new to me, from the on-the-spot weather forecasting to talking in front of lots of scientists. I’m used to research meetings with just a few people. Now you’re trying to convince a lot of scientists where to fly and when or whether or not we should fly at all on a given day. Also, all of the scientists are very open and easy to talk to if you have questions. It’s a productive environment for research.

What are your goals following the campaign?

From this campaign, there will be lots of data to look at, so I’ll probably analyze the data and write science papers. It’s very inspiring to see all the scientists here working together, so now I’m motivated.

A New Flame: Airborne Campaign the First to Sample Borneo Fire Smoke in Detail

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite captured large plumes of smoke from peat fires burning across the island of Borneo from Sept. 9 to Sept. 15, 2019. Credits: NASA


Until now, no one had captured smoke plumes from a Borneo fire in all their chemical, radiative, and physical glory…

My work partner in crime, Katy Mersmann, and I left Washington, D.C., Saturday morning and arrived at our hotel near Clark Air Base in Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines, shortly before midnight on Sunday. On Monday morning we dragged our feet into mission operations for the Cloud, Aerosol, and Monsoon Processes Philippines Experiment (CAMP2Ex),and not a minute later a giant monitor screen revealed a satellite-based map of Borneo peppered with red dots—the third largest island in the world was ablaze with hundreds of fires.

NASA’s P-3B science aircraft had already been having a field day, zooming in, over, and around those smoke plumes as they drifted north into the Sulu Sea. The plane is tracking the resulting smoke particles and their atmospheric interactions as part of CAMP2Ex’s nearly two-month-long investigation on the impact that smoke from fires and pollution have on clouds, a key factor in improving weather and climate forecasts.

From a screenshot on NASA’s Worldview, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite displays a rash of peat fires burning across the island of Borneo, Indonesia, and Malaysia on Sept. 15, 2019. Credits: NASA

Until now, no one had captured smoke plumes from a Borneo fire in all their chemical, radiative, and physical glory—said U.S. Naval Research Laboratory meteorologist and CAMP2Ex mission scientist Jeffrey Reid. “This is an historic day, and it’s happening in the middle of the largest fire event for the region in four years,” he said, noting that while agricultural fires in the region are common this time of year, the recent dry spell has made the peat soil perfect kindling for a prolonged burn. “Because the water table has dropped, these fires are going to continue to burn until the island sees some significant rainfall.”

Images taken from the forward (top) and nadir cameras aboard NASA’s P-3B aircraft during the Sept. 16 flight reveal a pea soup-thick layer of smoke in the atmosphere in the Sulu Sea north of Borneo. Credits: NASA

“There was tons of smoke east of Palawan [a Philippine island west of the Sulu Sea]—there was no visibility in the soup,” said Luke Ziemba, flight scientist for this flight and CAMP2Ex composition focus area lead from NASA’s Langley Research Center, who debriefed the science team following some eight hours in the air and more than 1,000 miles (1600 kilometers) of smoke tracking logged. “It was impossible to see the clouds.” But when better visibility did avail itself, the P3-B punched through as many clouds as possible—punch then descend, punch then descend—he recounted. As with any science flight that flirts with a wide range of altitudes—think 2,000 to 20,000 feet (600 to 6000 meters)—and commits to a number of maneuvers, from box spirals to pitches, it can be quite a stomach-churning experience.

NASA’s P-3B science aircraft touches down at Clark Air Base in Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines, after a successful flight on Sept. 15, 2019. Credits: NASA/Katy Mersmann

“And tomorrow we hit it again after it has been transported into the Western Pacific,” Reid said with a smile. The NASA P-3B would rendezvous with the Scripps research vessel Sally Ride, which is on its own campaign to study air-sea interactions to better understand how weather develops on continental and even intercontinental scales through the Office of Naval Research Propagation of InterSeasonal Tropical OscillatioNs (PISTON) project. A Stratton Park Engineering Company (SPEC) Inc. Learjet would also be in tow, validating the P3-B’s data while also doing its own in situ measurements in clouds.

The instruments involved are among the crème de la crème of the science world. Among the NASA P-3B’s instruments is the High Spectral Resolution Lidar, or HSRL2, which is situated in the aircraft’s belly and is able to observe aerosols up and down the atmospheric column and gather information on their distribution, abundance, type, and size. During the flight, NASA Langley research physical scientist and HSRL2 co-investigator Sharon Burton had been tracking the instrument’s measurements on her laptop. Pointing to graph readouts on screen, she noted that much of the smoke from the fire is drifting in the boundary layer, low in the atmosphere, where monsoon and other clouds form. “Aerosols can seed clouds and produce water droplets that come down as rain, but they can also prevent rain from falling,” she said. “It’s extremely complex, but that’s why we’re here—to get a better handle on the quantitative processes that make these events happen.”

After the afternoon flight debrief, a steady shower descended on Clark Air Base, cooling the sticky, heavy air synonymous with the Philippines rainy season. Everyone stares out the window, mesmerized, smiling, and grabbing umbrellas. It’s all science, and yet it’s still very magical.

An Atmospheric Science Workout


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Scavenger Hunt for Fire

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

by Joe Atkinson / SALINA, KANSAS /

Time for a change of scenery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Search Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, Fire

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

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

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

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

Things are about to heat up, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3, 2, 1

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

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

“Big hit!” says another one.

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

This is just the beginning.

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

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

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

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

A Brief Aside

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

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

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

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

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

Thank God.

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

A Learning Experience

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

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

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

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

JimC_DC8: Agreed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 1900

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

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


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

Monday, 0800

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

ACT-America completed its final science flights July 27.

Plumes Go the Distance

True color satellite image of Canada and the northern United States on July 23, 2019. Fires in northern Alberta (red dots in top left) produced smoke that traveled to the Great Lakes (bottom right) over the course of a few days. Credit: NASA EOSDIS / Worldview
True color satellite image of Canada and the northern United States on July 23, 2019. Fires in northern Alberta (red dots in top left) produced smoke that traveled to the Great Lakes (bottom right) over the course of a few days. Credit: NASA EOSDIS / Worldview

by Ellen Gray / BOISE, IDAHO/

From Alberta, Canada, to Michigan, USA. That’s how far the plumes of smoke traveled in a few short days, from July 21 to July 24. Smoke from wildfires has staying power.

Laura Thapa, a graduate student at the University of California Los Angeles and member of the FIREX-AQ forecasting team, has been monitoring the smoke from the northern Alberta fires over the last few days. She and her team first took notice of the plume on July 21, when its leading edge had already traversed half of the approximately 2000-mile journey to the Great Lakes by July 24.

Tracing a plumes’ journey accomplishes two main goals for FIREX-AQ. “It lets us verify the forecast models,” Laura said. The forecast team wants to improve and fine tune a number of smoke transport models that use weather and other data to project where smoke plumes end up.

In particular, scientists want to know where the fine particulate aerosols called PM 2.5 go. The microscopic particles are one of the biggest health hazards associated with fires. When breathed in, they can lodge deep in the lungs, causing irritation and coughing. Long term exposure has been linked to higher rates of respiratory and heart problems.

“I have asthma, so that’s my vested interest,” Laura said. It’s also the vested interest of the U.S. Forest Service, which leads the interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program, and the Environmental Protection Agency that closely monitors PM 2.5 and tries to limit exposure to communities downwind of fires.

The other goal tracking plumes serves is much more practical during the campaign. As the fire season progresses, background smoke from fires-in-progress may be present in the air when a new fire starts and a new plume develops. Keeping track of plumes as they travel helps tease out what fires contributed to the smoke the science team is measuring in the DC-8.

“Understanding the transport is important for seeing what’s going on,” Laura said.

The DC-8 Goes the Distance, too

The DC-8 takes off from Boise, Idaho, for a science flight on July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA
The DC-8 takes off from Boise, Idaho, for a science flight on July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA

The FIREX-AQ team will be in Boise through August 18, but for the Communications team our coverage is at an end. For now.

After Boise, the DC-8, Twin Otters, Mobile Labs, and everything else FIREX-AQ brought with them to Boise will travel to Salina, Kansas, to study prescribed agricultural fires which have different fuels and emissions.

Stay tuned.


Join us on @NASAExpeditions Twitter and NASA Expeditions Facebook for more from FIREX-AQ in Boise. Our coverage in Salina will continue on @NASAEarth and the NASA Earth Facebook page.

Fire Weather, Pyro Weather

True color satellite image from MODIS on July 28, 2019. The red dots are fires detected by the MODIS and VIIRS instruments. In southwest Oregon, the smoke plume from the Milepost 97 fire is visible. Credit: NASA EOSDIS/ Worldview
True color satellite image from MODIS on July 28, 2019, of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The red dots are fires detected by the MODIS and VIIRS instruments. In southwest Oregon, the smoke plume from the Milepost 97 Fire is visible. The red dot in central Idaho is the Shady Fire. Credit: NASA EOSDIS / Worldview

by Ellen Gray / BOISE, IDAHO/

Each morning Amber Soja gets up at 5:00 a.m. to check the fire weather. She’s an associate scientist from the National Institute of Aerospace based at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, one of the lead forecasters for FIREX-AQ with one of the most important jobs: distilling the information from the National Weather Service, the National Interagency Fire Center, and other satellite and model info into a short list of fires for the DC-8 to visit the next day. All by 8 a.m.

Understanding fire weather is a big part of the job. Fire weather is the term used to describe weather conditions favorable for fires to start or burn, a mixture of high temperature, low humidity, zero to low rainfall, and high winds.

“Fire weather is the potential to have the fire behavior that we want to see,” Amber said. Hot, dry and windy conditions build over the course of a day’s worth of sunshine, so that where fire weather conditions are present in the morning, fires in the same area are likely to become active in the late afternoon. And for the FIREX-AQ science team, active usually means a smoke plume to fly through.

The National Weather Service puts out daily maps of where they forecast fire weather to be elevated. This map came out on July 28, 2019. Credit: NOAA/ NWS
The National Weather Service puts out daily maps of where they forecast fire weather to be elevated. This map came out on July 28, 2019. Credit: NOAA/ NWS

At 10:00 a.m., Amber presents her team’s short list of fires to the science team at the daily morning briefing. This is the meeting where decisions are made about where and when to fly the DC-8. In a neat table projected on the wall, the fire short-list also takes into account the types of fuel on the ground – the second major ingredient for wildfires, and one that can change the chemistry of the plume whether its grassland or timber – as well as location, size, and what action is being taken to monitor and fight the fire, among other considerations.

While Amber is putting together the fire outlook, David Peterson from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, California, is working with a team of meteorologists and forecasters to monitor and forecast weather systems. It’s a slightly amped up version of a local weather newscast, and includes current conditions and outlooks for high and low pressure systems, moisture, and cloudiness that could hamper the DC-8. By 9:00 a.m. they’re analyzing their model results, and at the 10 a.m. briefing, David shares the forecast with the science team.

The forecasting team meets early everyday to look at upcoming fire and weather conditions. July 28, 2019. Credit: NASA
The forecasting team meets early everyday to look at upcoming fire and weather conditions. July 28, 2019. Credit: NASA

He’s also on the lookout for the potential for a different type of weather – weather generated by the fires themselves.

“A fire is a heat source. It’s creating a strong updraft,” David said. The smoky air above a large, hot fire shoots upward like going up a chimney, and in the void left behind, more air is sucked in from the sides, which gets heated and lofted. When this fire-generated circulation lofts the smoke high enough, from 15,000 to 30,000 feet, and there’s moisture at the higher altitudes, pyrocumulonimbus clouds can form – also known as smoke-infused thunderstorms.

These billowing, smoke-polluted storms don’t really produce rain, but lightning strikes are possible. They can also, in some cases, loft a large smoke plume into the upper atmosphere (stratosphere), where it can circulate around the globe, similar to the impact from a volcanic eruption.

With each daily forecast, David is on the lookout for conditions that might produce pyro-clouds and thunderstorms. In the coming week, the weather over the Shady Fire looks promising, but only time – and a little luck – will tell.

UPDATE Aug 13, 2019: The DC-8 flew through a pyrocumulous cloud on August 8 generated by a fire in eastern Washington. David got to sit in the cockpit and see the cloud from the air. See the stunning pictures and read more about it at NASA’s Earth Observatory Image of the Day.

Join us on @NASAExpeditions Twitter and NASA Expeditions Facebook for more from FIREX-AQ.