ACT-America: Settling into the Rhythm of the Field

C-130 pilots Jim Lawson, left, and Paul Pinaud during a flight. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

by Hannah Halliday / SHREVEPORT, LOUISIANA /

Fieldwork is my favorite part of my job. I have been working as a postdoc at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for a few days over a year, and I’m still not over the excitement of arriving somewhere new, ready to take measurements and run our instruments.

My background is in chemistry, but I slid into meteorology because I wanted to apply myself to environmental issues that had global impact. That decision put me on a path into the world of air quality research, and ultimately to NASA to work with airborne science. While I’m still new to flying for science, I love working with instruments and taking measurements. Being on an aircraft turns that feeling up to 11.

Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America, or ACT-AMERICA, has been an especially cool project to be involved with because I earned my Ph.D. at Penn State, where principal investigator Ken Davis and other members of the ACT-AMERICA planning team are based. Working with ACT-AMERICA is part serious work and part fun reunion, working with people I know well on a totally new subject and project. I got to fly with the mission last spring, and I’ve come back to join them again for two weeks in Shreveport, Louisiana.

The C-130 doesn’t have many windows, but Halliday is lucky to have one beside her seat. Flights often have low-altitude runs, and offer views of the country from unique angles. This is a view of the Mississippi River from the Sunday, Nov. 5, flight. Credit: NASA/Hannah Halliday

On Saturday, Nov. 4, we took a break from flying to do instrument work and maintenance. For my group, which is tasked with the Atmospheric Vertical Observations of CO2 in the Earth’s Troposphere, or AVOCET, in-situ measurements, that meant calibrating our instruments. When we calibrate, we send our instruments gases that have a known concentration and record what our instruments measure. Doing this regularly allows us to keep track and correct for the instrument drifting over time, and to maintain the accuracy and precision of our measurements.

Hannah Halliday, right, monitors incoming AVOCET measurements during a Nov. 2 science flight. Next to her are Theresa Klausner and Max Eckle, Ph.D. students with the German Aerospace Center, DLR, which has joined the fall flight campaign to test an instrument that measures methane and ethane. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman
Bianca Baier, a postdoctoral researcher with NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Lab in Boulder, Colorado, and Ken Davis, ACT-America principal investigator from Penn State, talk during a flight. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

Our two aircraft, a C-130 and a B-200, are stored in different locations when we’re at our ground sites. The calibration gas tanks are heavy, so for ease of use we’ve built our calibration gas cylinders their own little cart that they live on, which can be towed from one location to another. The cylinders are left on the cart, where we put a regulator on the calibration cylinder we want to use and run a tube into the airplane. It’s a simple solution that lets us easily and quickly use the same calibration gases on two different aircraft.

Calibration gas cylinders on their transportation cart. During a calibration, scientists use three gases with low, middle and high concentrations, and use this information to understand how the instrument will behave when it “sees” gases in the environment. Credit: NASA/Hannah Halliday

One of the reasons I love working in science is that our measurements and our work is built on a heap of clever solutions to small problems. While we also stand on the shoulders of scientific giants who had deep insights into the workings of the universe (for instance, Isaac Newton realizing that the gravity affecting an apple also affects the stars), in our day-to-day work we use the cleverness of the people who worked out the universal swage fittings, or the person who figured out how to set up our inlet system to bring air in from outside the plane when we’re at high altitude.

We’re not all brilliant all the time, but by looking at a problem long enough we can often find a clever solution to a small vexing problem (such as how to quickly transport our calibration cylinders), and that’s where our progress comes from.

On Sunday, Nov. 5, we flew a science mission, measuring the inflow of air from the Gulf of Mexico. It was a busy day for me, because I was both tending my group’s instruments and also taking flask samples for NOAA. NOAA uses glass-lined containers to trap air at specific locations on the flight track. They take these samples back to their lab in Boulder, Colorado, where they measure the greenhouse gases as well as other molecules that help determine whether samples were influenced by other sources, such as traffic or wildfires. My job was to follow their sampling plan, telling their mostly automated system when to collect a sample and coordinating with our in-flight calibrations.

Specialized inlets draw air into the instruments and have different designs based on the needs of the instruments. These inlets are located near the front of the aircraft so they don’t sample the exhaust from the engines. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

The flights can be quite busy, and it’s a full day of activity. For the four to five hours that a typical science flight will last, we have an additional three hours of flight prep before we take off, and a debriefing meeting once we land, plus data workup and archiving the preliminary data once we’re back in our hotel rooms.

The C-130 gets a checkup after the Nov. 5 flight. A dedicated flight team keeps the aircraft running and maintained. Credit: NASA/Hannah Halliday

It’s satisfying work, but it’s important that we have non-flight days like Saturday to catch up on our instrument maintenance as well as personal things—exercise, laundry, even sleep. When we’re in the field there’s no set schedule like when we’re in the office, and it’s important to grab that time when we can, because flight days depend on the weather, and a good measurement day waits for no scientist, not even when they have a plane!

ACT-America: Waiting for the Great Big Teaspoon in the Sky

The NASA Langley B200 sits in a hangar at Shreveport Regional Airport. It and the C-130 won’t fly today because the weather pattern is too similar to the one they flew through the day before. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

by Joe Atkinson / SHREVEPORT, LOUISIANA /

Brrrr.

I don’t know what I was expecting from Louisiana in late October, but I definitely wasn’t expecting cold and damp.

I’m here for the final leg of the fall 2017 flight campaign for Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America, or ACT-America, a five-year NASA study looking at the transport of carbon dioxide and methane by weather systems in the eastern United States.

This is the third flight campaign of the study and the team has just arrived in Shreveport—home base for the next two weeks. Flight operations will be based out of Shreveport Regional Airport. Sleep operations are based at a hotel just a few minutes down the road in Bossier City.

ACT America group with the B200 King Air and C130 Hercules in Shreveport Louisiana. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

As I’ve already mentioned, the weather so far is pretty meh. There’s a slow-moving front to thank for that. But more on the creeping front later on. First, a little taste of ACT-America’s home for the next couple of weeks.

Shreveport is the largest city in Ark-La-Tex, a region that includes Northwestern Louisiana, Northeastern Texas and South Arkansas. It and Bossier City are divided by the Red River. Shreveport is on the west, Bossier City the east. Casinos dot the riverbank—the Horseshoe, Boomtown, Eldorado, Margaritaville, Diamond Jack’s.

It’s no big surprise that you can’t go far here without finding restaurants that have Cajun and Creole dishes on the menu. The first night in town, a contingent from the ACT-America team visits the Blind Tiger in downtown Shreveport. Steaming plates of crawfish etouffe come out of the kitchen accompanied by crusty homemade croutons and mounds of rice. There’s a dish called Cajun fried corn—breaded, deep-fried corn on the cob. Louisiana beers are on tap. Gumbo is spelled gumbeaux.

The State Fair of Louisiana is taking place in Shreveport. It claims to be the largest livestock show and carnival in the state. Rick Rowe, a reporter with the local ABC affiliate, does a segment on the morning news with a man who sells fried cheese at the fair. Rowe samples a cube that’s just been pulled from the bubbling hot oil and sounds positively ecstatic as he bites through the crispy breading.

The state fair isn’t the only thing going on, though. Another news segment has a meteorologist visiting a Bossier City shop that sells power equipment: lawnmowers, leaf blowers, generators, chainsaws. They have an event coming up called Sawdust Days. Folks who show up for Sawdust Days will be treated to a special demonstration by a man who does wood carvings with a chainsaw.

“He’s carved a lot of pieces right here,” the shop owner says, gesturing to a rustic-looking wooden bear that towers over him and the meteorologist, “so he’s pretty good at it.”

I turn off the TV and head to the airport to catch up with another guy who knows something about meteorology—Ken Davis, principal investigator for ACT-America and a professor of meteorology at Penn State University.

Weather is critical to ACT-America. In fact, it’s the reason that, on its first full day in Shreveport, the campaign is keeping its C-130 and B200 aircraft on the ground. Just the day before, as ACT-America moved from its previous homebase in Lincoln, Nebraska, to Shreveport, the aircraft passed through the very front that’s inching through Louisiana now, bringing the chilly air and rain along with it. Instruments on both aircraft measured carbon dioxide and methane levels during the transit.

“This weather is relatively similar to what we documented yesterday,” Davis says. “If we measured it yesterday, we don’t need to measure it today.”

Although there won’t be a flight today, there’s still work to do. Here, Yonghoon Choi, an instrument investigator from NASA Langley, and Max Eckle, a Ph.D. student with DLR, the German aerospace agency, help unload equipment and supplies that have been trucked to Shreveport from the previous ACT-America homebase in Lincoln, Nebraska. The fall flights are giving the DLR a chance to see how their methane- and ethane-detecting Quantum Cascade Laser Spectrometer operates in the field, while also allowing the ACT-America scientists to better zero in on methane sources. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

What the team will want to measure, though, is what happens to the greenhouse gases after the cold front stalls not too far south of Shreveport. There, it’ll get a push from warm, low-level air flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico and then move northeast as a warm front.

It’s a scenario that may take a couple of days to play out, so the next research flights may happen tomorrow, they may happen the day after tomorrow. The atmosphere will do what it wants to do, thank you. Davis likens it to a big cup of coffee.

“Over the timescale of days,” he stretches out days when he says it, “somebody’s stirring it with a great big teaspoon. And you’ve got to wait … every stir takes a couple of days. We want to measure different parts of that.”

Later on, at a planning meeting, they make the final decision—another down day tomorrow, then a flight the next day when the great big teaspoon in the sky has finally mixed things up just so. It’ll be a good day for airborne science.

The meeting breaks up. Folks head back to their hotel rooms.

With a free evening in front of me, I think about taking a chilly walk down the bank of the Red River to get a look at the Shreveport skyline at night. And for some reason, I’m craving a piping hot cup of coffee.

Hannah Halliday, left, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA Langley, and Bianca Baier, a postdoctoral researcher at the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, point out to Ken Davis a region where fires might make for interesting measurements. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman
At a late-afternoon planning meeting at the hotel, ACT-America prinicipal investigator Ken Davis, left, listens as research scientist Sandip Pal discusses which day might be best to fly next. The weather pattern for the upcoming two days could be favorable for science flights. After much debate, they make the decision to give the pattern an extra day to set up before flying again. C-130 pilot Jim Lawson and mission manager Charles Juenger, far right, listen in. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

Coming to ACT-America

A side-by-side flight for NASA’s C-130 and Langley Research Center’s UC-12 over Farmville, Virginia. By measuring the same air from two aircraft, instruments on both aircraft can be tuned to yield the same output. Credit: Anke Roiger

by Julian Kostinek / WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, WALLOPS ISLAND, VIRGINIA /

One year after starting my Ph.D. studies at the DLR (German Aerospace Center), which involves spending hours and hours week after week in labs optimizing a Quantum Cascade Laser Spectrometer (QCLS) for airborne greenhouse gas analysis, the time has finally come to get out into the wild.

When Ken Davis from Penn State University visited DLR at the end of 2016, a big and thrilling chance opened up to take part in one of NASA’s big atmospheric science missions: Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America (ACT-America). Davis is the principal investigator.

ACT-America is a project aimed at better understanding how mid-latitude weather systems interact with carbon dioxide and methane sources and sinks. By measuring these significant greenhouse gases from aboard NASA Wallops Flight Facility’s C-130 and Langley Research Center’s B-200 aircraft, both equipped with high performance instrumentation, better data on regional carbon dioxide and methane sources and sinks will become available to scientists all across the world.

Arriving last month at Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, we (my colleague Anke Roiger and I) got a quick tour through Hangar N-159 with Martin Nowicki, system engineer at Wallops. Martin and all the other folks  at Wallops helped us big time during the upload phase.

At first, we were totally overwhelmed by how big everything was here at NASA, especially the C-130. It’s enormous, at least to us, because we normally operate on much smaller aircraft. For the following two weeks the C-130 Hercules was prepared by the engineers and mechanics of the maintenance crew at Wallops.

NASA’s WFF C-130 on the maneuvering area, just outside of Hangar N-159 at Wallops Flight Facility, during mission preparation. Scientists can power up their instruments hours before takeoff, to allow the delicate instruments to reach stable conditions. Credit: Julian Kostinek

Under the lead of ACT-America program manager Mike Obland from NASA Langley and C-130 Integration/Operations Engineer Linda Thompson from Wallops, all instrument racks had been mounted one after the other. Unfortunately, our rack didn’t reach Wallops because of problems with our logistics company, which caused a real headache.

But here at NASA, people find a solution for every problem: James “Jimmy” Geiger from Langley helped us out with an empty, brand-new C-130 rack. He even designed an inlet probe for our instrument, enabling sampling of atmospheric air just outside the aircraft’s boundary layer. With our stuff arriving at Wallops we could finally move on to installing the instrument.

On Sept. 22 the mission transitioned from the upload phase to the operational phase. The science teams were now meeting at Wallops for calibration, planning and the last tests of their respective instruments. Suddenly the hangar became crowded.

Sept. 24 was the big day I had been looking forward to for so long: The first instrument test flight and my first ever flight on a C-130. I was totally excited. With the turboprop engines starting up, one can really feel the power behind this aircraft. Although way louder, it takes off and lands as smoothly as big passenger aircraft. Or is it just because of the pilots?

PhD student Julian Kostinek flies on NASA’s C-130 aircraft. Credit: NASA

I had been expecting a rough ride in advance, but the plane was surprisingly stable and calm. The QCLS instrument had a stable performance too—what a nice surprise! Some minor issues existed, but all parameters remained in a safe-to-operate domain at all times. The first flight had been a complete success with respect to our instrument. The same held for the other teams too, according to the post-flight meeting. These meetings, known as de-briefings, are held on a regular basis after each flight. All personnel aboard the aircraft attend these, including the pilots.

The flight for the B-200 wasn’t quite as successful as the C-130’s. The crew found issues with a PICARRO greenhouse gas analyzer. Decisions were made to remove an identical instrument from the C-130 and mount it on the B-200.

With a spare PICARRO instrument mounted in virtually no time by the AVOCET team, the second instrument test flight could be engaged. An in-air rendezvous, or side-by-side flight, with Langley’s B-200 aircraft was planned and successfully carried out, along with LIDAR calibration at different altitudes, to pave the way for the upcoming science flights. The side-by-side flight enables comparison between the instruments mounted on the two aircraft. By measuring the same air on both aircraft, data integrity can be greatly improved. Another awesome flight for all of us.

With the test flights successfully carried out, time has come for the real deal: the scientific flights. But more on that later, gotta hop on to the next flight. See y’all! And thanks NASA for enabling this unique experience.

Sights from the ACT-America Winter Field Campaign

by Joe Atkinson / HAMPTON, VIRGINIA /

Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America, or ACT-America, wrapped up its winter field campaign Friday, March 10, with a final set of flights out of coastal Virginia.

The campaign, which is looking at how weather systems and other atmospheric phenomena affect the movement of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere around the eastern half of the United States, began Feb. 1 with two weeks of flights out of Shreveport, Louisiana. The base of operations moved twice: to Lincoln, Nebraska, then to Virginia.

ACT-America employs two aircraft outfitted with several science instruments—a C-130 based at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and a B-200 based at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Principal Investigator Ken Davis of Penn State took lots of photos during the six-week field excursion. Here are a few of the sights he and a couple of the other team members captured. All photos courtesy of Davis except where noted.

Fire in the Southeast

Credit: Ken Davis
Credit: Penn State/Ken Davis

During a flight out of Shreveport, Davis took this picture of smoke rising from a fire somewhere in Alabama or Mississippi. According to Davis, there were a few fires in Gulf Coast forests in early February. Some of the most noteworthy ones were in Arkansas. “We did encounter elevated CO2 over Arkansas,” he said, “probably caused in part by the biomass burning we passed over.” 

Gulf Coast Flow

SONY DSC
Credit: Penn State/Ken Davis

Along the Gulf Coast, Davis took this photo of what he believed to be an offshore oil facility. Facilities like this one could be sources of methane, but ACT-America wasn’t specifically attempting to detect emissions from offshore oil. Of greater interest was air flowing from the Gulf of Mexico onto the continent. “There is often onshore flow from the Gulf across the midwestern and southeastern U.S.,” he said. “That was what we wanted to measure this day.” 

Squares of White

Credit:
Credit: Bing Lin

The campaign moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, in mid-February. During that midwest leg, a storm system brought a blanket of snow to the region, making for serene scenes like this one, photographed by Project Scientist Bing Lin.

Satellite Flight

Credit: Penn State/Ken Davis
Credit: Penn State/Ken Davis

Davis took this photo over the midwest during a flight to validate remote sensing data from the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite. OCO-2 uses near infrared reflection to make its measurements of carbon dioxide. Snow is dark in the near infrared, though, meaning it’s not reflective, so satellite validation flights like this one can help researchers see how well OCO-2 is working as it collects measurements while orbiting over snow-covered land.

Down and Outlaws?

Credit: Cate Easmunt
Credit: Cate Easmunt

During a down day in Lincoln, a few folks from the team toured a brewery that sits above a 5,000-square-foot cave. Pictured, from left to right, are Bill Ziegelbauer, Nathan Blume, Dirk Richter, Rebecca Pauly, Matthew Elder, Cate Easmunt, Mike Wusk and Greg Slover. According to a local legend, outlaw Jesse James may have used the cave as a hideout after a heist in Minnesota. No outlaws on the ACT-America team, though. They all left the cave after the tour was over. We think. Photo courtesy of Cate Easmunt.

Reunited and … You Know the Rest

Credit: Penn State/Ken Davis
Credit: Penn State/Ken Davis

During the Mid-Atlantic leg of the campaign, Davis posed for this photo at Wallops with Hannah Halliday of NASA Langley and Bianca Baier of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Halliday and Baier, who had both been taught by Davis at Penn State, operated instruments on the flights. “I didn’t know we’d all be in the field together,” said Davis, “and I was smart enough to get a couple of photos.”

Coal Country

Credit: Penn State/Ken Davis
Credit: Penn State/Ken Davis

Flights over the Appalachian Mountains in southwest Pennsylvania and eastern West Virginia allowed ACT-America researchers to measure carbon emissions upwind and downwind of coal and gas extraction activities in the region.

Keeping Warm

Credit: Penn State/Ken Davis
Credit: Penn State/Ken Davis

ACT-America Project Manager Mike Obland of NASA Langley wears long sleeves to keep warm on one of the flights over the Mid-Atlantic. Even on relatively warm days, temperatures on the C-130 can get chilly, particularly at higher altitudes.

That’s a Wrap

Credit: Cate Easmunt
Credit: Cate Easmunt

As the winter field campaign came to a close in Virginia, team members posed for this group photo by the C-130. Photo courtesy of Cate Easmunt.

ACT-America will return for a second 2017 field campaign in the fall.

From One Seasonal Extreme to Another

The crew of the C-130, including flight engineer Archie Archambault, foreground, prepare to depart Wallops for Shreveport, Louisiana — the first stop for ACT-America’s winter field campaign. Credit: NASA/Patrick Black
The crew of the C-130, including flight engineer Archie Archambault, foreground, prepare to depart Wallops for Shreveport, Louisiana — the first stop for ACT-America’s winter field campaign. Credit: NASA/Patrick Black

by Joe Atkinson / HAMPTON, VIRGINIA /

Last year, the first in a series of five flight campaigns for Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America, or ACT-America, sent researchers into the field at the blazing peak of summer.

The flights were investigating how weather systems and other atmospheric phenomena affect the movement of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere around the eastern half of the United States.

This year, those same researchers are doing it all again. And this time, they’re heading out during the deepest, coldest part of winter. Flights out of Shreveport, Louisiana, begin February 1. In coming weeks, ACT-America’s base of operations will move twice — once to Lincoln, Nebraska, and then to coastal Virginia.

A crew makes final preparations to NASA’s C-130H at Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore ahead of ACT-America’s winter field campaign. Credit: NASA/Patrick Black
A crew makes final preparations to NASA’s C-130H at Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore ahead of ACT-America’s winter field campaign. Credit: NASA/Patrick Black

So why trade one seasonal extreme for another?

“Because the carbon budget, especially when it comes to carbon dioxide, is highly seasonal,” said Ken Davis, ACT-America prinicpal investigator from Penn State University.

From summer to winter, the exchange of carbon dioxide between the biosphere on land and the atmosphere goes through some big changes.

“The biosphere is growing vigorously in the summer, taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” said Davis from his office at Penn State. “In the winter, it’s slowly breathing out — not a lot, because it’s cold. But it is slowly exhaling all winter long.”

The transport of greenhouse gases through the atmosphere can be quite different in winter as well. The jet stream plunges deeper south and tends to bring with it more intense storms. Those mid-latitude cyclones cause vigorous mixing of the gases in the atmosphere.

One thing that tends to stay relatively steady from season to season — human carbon emissions from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

What makes ACT-America unique is that it marks the first time aircraft outfitted to take advanced measurements of greenhouse gases have collected continuous data on how greenhouse gases are transported through the atmosphere by weather systems.

Previous measurements studying greenhouse gases have mostly come from tower-based measurement stations and satellites (one of ACT-America’s goals is actually to verify data coming in from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite), or from aircraft flying in fair weather conditions when atmospheric transport is relatively simple.

The campaign will use instruments on a C-130H based out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and a King Air B-200 based out of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Charles Howell, electronics engineer, makes final adjustments to the electrical system of NASA’s King Air B-200 at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman
Charles Howell, electronics engineer, makes final adjustments to the electrical system of NASA’s King Air B-200 at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

Davis believes the data the ACT-America team is collecting could help paint a much more detailed picture of what’s happening with greenhouse gases in the U.S.

“It’s our vision to enable the research community to monitor over time and space carbon dioxide and methane fluxes,” he said. “For example, if forests in the eastern U.S. become stressed by droughts and begin to de-gas their carbon stocks into the atmosphere, we want be able to detect it from atmospheric data and know quickly that we have a problem. And if measures are taken to reduce methane emissions from agriculture, and oil and gas extraction, we want to be able to verify that they’re proving effective.”

Breaking up the Intensity

Amid the flurry of activity that comes with being in the field, Ken Davis, principal investigator for ACT-America from Penn State, finds moments of calm in running and exploring nature. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman
Amid the flurry of activity that comes with being in the field, Ken Davis, principal investigator for ACT-America from Penn State, finds moments of calm in running and exploring nature. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

That long-term vision motivates Davis as he faces what he refers to as “the intensity of the field deployment.”

To keep the intensity manageable, he finds little ways to decompress. The Penn State professor is an avid runner. Last summer, when he wasn’t on a flight or planning a flight or doing something related to the campaign, it wasn’t unusual to catch Davis in his unofficial uniform: a T-shirt, shorts and running shoes. That’s not likely to change for this flight campaign, regardless of the weather.

“That’s been my thing for a long time,” he said. “Get outside, go for a run.”

Davis also hopes to slow down and enjoy his surroundings — particularly in Virginia.

Last July wasn’t exactly the best time for that. From his temporary home base at Wallops, Davis ventured out to visit nearby Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore. The area is known for its pristine beaches, herds of wild ponies and migratory bird populations.

Unfortunately, when it’s warm, the area is also known for its hungry mosquitoes.

So Davis hopes the winter season will not only bring changes to concentrations of greenhouse gases, but also to concentrations of blood-sucking insects.

“We went out there in the summer and were eaten alive,” he said. “But I like the place and it should be fun to see it in the winter when we won’t be eaten alive.”

Chasing Greenhouse Gases Where Corn Stands Tall

by Joe Atkinson / LINCOLN, NEBRASKA /

It’s the morning meeting before the day’s flight on Thursday, Aug. 4. Fingers are clacking away at laptop keyboards. Starburst and Jolly Ranchers are scattered across a long table.

Almost as colorful as the candy are the weather maps projected onto the wall. They show a weather front slicing clean through Nebraska. Storms are likely later in the day. We’ll soon be chasing carbon dioxide and methane around both sides of the front in NASA’s C-130 Hercules research aircraft.

Fields of green are an ever-present sight on the August 4 science flight, which nips down into Missouri before heading back up through Nebraska and into southern South Dakota. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson
Fields of green are an ever-present sight on the August 4 science flight, which nips down into Missouri before heading back up through Nebraska and into southern South Dakota. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson
Dan Lahrman, an electrical test engineer, pours liquid nitrogen into the Multi-function Laser Lidar before takeoff. Instrument technicians have to keep a detector in the lidar as close to absolute zero as possible. During long flights, that sometimes means waiting for a smooth stretch and refilling the liquid nitrogen in the air. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson
Dan Lahrman, an electrical test engineer, pours liquid nitrogen into the Multi-function Laser Lidar before takeoff. Instrument technicians have to keep a detector in the lidar as close to absolute zero as possible. During long flights, that sometimes means waiting for a smooth stretch and refilling the liquid nitrogen in the air. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson

The flight is part of the Atmospheric Carbon and Transport–America, or ACT-America, campaign, which is investigating how weather systems and other atmospheric phenomena affect the movement of the two greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  

Our flight path will take us into the northwest corner of Missouri then back north through Nebraska and into South Dakota.

“We’re going after something that should be dominated by transport,” says Ken Davis, principal investigator for ACT-America from Penn State.

Looking at flight scenarios for upcoming days, ACT-America instrument scientist Josh DiGangi of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, suggests an ambitious path that involves a spiral pattern.

“Oh, that just makes my head hurt,” Davis says.

The C-130 sits on the tarmac before takeoff. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson
The C-130 sits on the tarmac before takeoff. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson
Pilots Brian Bernth, foreground, and Jeff Callaghan maneuver the C-130 to altitudes from 1,000 to 25,000 feet. Twice during the 5-hour flight, they push the aircraft into long, looping spirals that start high and end with turbulent low-altitude runs. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson
Pilots Brian Bernth, foreground, and Jeff Callaghan maneuver the C-130 to altitudes from 1,000 to 25,000 feet. Twice during the 5-hour flight, they push the aircraft into long, looping spirals that start high and end with turbulent low-altitude runs. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson

In the minutes before everyone heads out to the aircraft, a reporter from the Lincoln Journal Star calls. He’s hoping to find out what NASA is doing in Lincoln.

It’s a fair question. Amid the hubbub of people prepping for the flight, Davis explains to the reporter that the Midwest is a region ripe with greenhouse gas fluxes, or areas where lots of greenhouse gases are exchanged between the biosphere on land and the atmosphere.

Agriculture is a huge factor. The vast, seemingly endless fields of corn and soybean in the area gobble up a lot of carbon dioxide. Cows and other livestock produce copious amounts of methane. Coal operations in Wyoming, and oil and gas production in the Dakotas contribute to the complex atmospheric chemistry as well.

“It’s the kind of ecosystem we want to understand,” Davis tells the reporter.

Weather plays a factor, too. Big storms churn up the gases and move them around.

“This is where the storms form,” Davis says. “Many mid-latitude cyclones are born on the eastern slope of the Rockies.”

Ken Davis, ACT-America principal investigator, stays glued to his laptop monitoring data through much of the flight, though he occasionally pokes his head up into the cockpit to snap photos. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson
Ken Davis, ACT-America principal investigator, stays glued to his laptop monitoring data through much of the flight, though he occasionally pokes his head up into the cockpit to snap photos. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson
Rebecca Pauly of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center preps the Cloud Physics Lidar before takeoff. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinso
Rebecca Pauly of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center preps the Cloud Physics Lidar before takeoff. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinso
Josh DiGangi, ACT-America instrument scientist from NASA Langley, monitors in situ greenhouse gas measurements in real time during the flight. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson
Josh DiGangi, ACT-America instrument scientist from NASA Langley, monitors in situ greenhouse gas measurements in real time during the flight. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson

On the C-130, not long after takeoff, Davis climbs the stairs into the cockpit.

“After we get to the end of this,” he says, gesturing out at the clouds, “we’re going to spiral down, turn around and fly at about 1,000 feet.” He moves his hands up and down to simulate turbulence. “That’s usually pretty fun.”

And it is. The first time. Another bouncy low-altitude run later in the flight puts my inner ear to the test.

Other than that, though, it’s a relatively smooth, comfortable ride — even with a fair number of altitude changes. Those changes are important. They allow the science instruments to gather data in different layers of the atmosphere.

Also, as Josh DiGangi puts it: “Remote sensing instruments like to be up high; in situ instruments like to be down low.”

In fact, the remote sensing lidar instruments can be dangerous at lower altitudes. A zap from one of the lasers could do real damage to the eyes of someone looking up through a pair of binoculars. That’s why lidar instruments have to be turned off at altitudes below 6,000 feet.

As he watches real-time data from his in situ instruments scroll across a computer monitor, DiGangi occasionally reaches into a nearby storage bin and pulls out handfuls of pretzels or cheddar popcorn. He offers to share.

“But don’t eat my banana,” he says. “That’s my banana.”

He’s joking. Sort of. But snacks and drinks are relatively easy to come by on the aircraft, anyway. There’s a microwave, a little refrigerator and even a coffee maker.

Little amenities like a coffeemaker make long flights more bearable. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson

After five mostly nausea-free hours in the air, the C-130 lands back in Lincoln.

“[Lincoln’s] not as exciting as traveling to some exotic part of the world,” Davis joked to the newspaper reporter that morning.

He’s right. It’s not exotic. But following a vicious thunderstorm that rips through Lincoln a couple of hours after the flight touches down, a vivid double rainbow arcs over the airport. It’s visible from end to end. Yeah, it’s not tropical beaches and palm trees, but it’s a beautiful sight nonetheless.

One of the main reasons for ACT-America coming to Lincoln is agriculture. The vast cornfields are major carbon sinks, and there's no escaping them, not even at the airport. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson
One of the main reasons for ACT-America coming to Lincoln is agriculture. The vast cornfields are major carbon sinks, and there’s no escaping them, not even at the airport. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson

 

 

From the Cockpit: Q&A with NASA Science Pilots

by Sam McDonald / HAMPTON, VA. /

Flying airborne science missions requires skill, patience and adaptability.

The C-130H pilots flying now over the eastern United States measuring carbon dioxide and methane for NASA’s ACT-America field campaign are asked to fly precise routes, giving scientists an opportunity to gather very specific sets of data on sources, absorption and movement of these gases.

In the skies over Maryland on July 22, pilot Jim Lawson takes in the view during an ACT-America flight to measure atmospheric gases. Credit: NASA/Sam McDonald

Readings taken by instruments aboard the aircraft will be compared to those collected on the ground, aboard a second ACT-America aircraft, and from a satellite on orbit. Making apples-to-apples comparisons means following exact flight profiles while shepherding the airplane through weather that’s not always sunny and mild.

Pilot Jim Lawson draws on 28 years of flying as a Navy pilot and a civilian flight instructor, putting in more than 10,000 hours at the controls of 11 different types of aircraft. Last year, he flew more than 30 times for NASA’s Operation IceBridge.

Jeff Callaghan has made the C-130 his specialty. He’s been piloting that type of aircraft since getting his wings as a Marine in 1995. He has accumulated more than 3,000 hours in the C-130. In May, Callaghan flew as part of NASA’s North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study.

Penn State’s Ken Davis (left), principal investigator for ACT-America, collaborates with C-130H pilots Jeff Callaghan (center) and Jim Lawson during a pre-flight huddle at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: NASA/Sam McDonald

We asked Lawson and Callaghan questions about what it’s like to fly American skies in the name of science and in support of ACT-America.

What do you find the most difficult or rewarding about flying for ACT-America? 

Jim Lawson: Flying for science is very challenging and interesting. We are challenged as pilots when flying NASA mission profiles and get to use the full extent of our pilot skills. The reward is knowing that the work I do benefits the advancement of science and humanity.

Flying weather-dependent missions requires flexibility. When you find you can’t fly because of adverse conditions, how do you spend your time?

JL: While on the ground, the pilots are assisting the science team in the planning of the next missions. If one flight mission cancels for any reason, we look for ways to incorporate that mission into future mission profiles. Adaptability and flexibility are key!

You previously flew for the Navy and are currently in the Naval reserves.  Was it hard to make the transition to NASA missions?

JL: All of the aircrew have prior military service. We have Navy, Marines and Air Force represented on the crew. The culture and work ethic are the same and we all work well together to get the mission done. The only difference is the mission and the customer. Unlike the military, where our mission would be to support combat operations and where the customer is the Department of Defense, the mission for us now is the NASA science objectives and our customer is our NASA science team.

Communication is key to achieve the NASA mission objectives, and this can be a challenge sometimes, but since we are all professionals, we learn to speak each other’s language. The aircrew become wise in the ways of science and the scientists learn the ways of aviation.

What do you like most about being a pilot?

JL: My office always has the best view.

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At NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, pilot Jim Lawson in front of the C-130H. Credit: NASA/Sam McDonald

Does flying along weather fronts present any unusual challenges?

Jeff Callaghan: Having flown the C-130 for so many years in all kinds of weather conditions, I would say that the only unusual thing would be trying to figure out where the front is, but that is why the science team comes up with our flight paths. 

Do you feel like, as a pilot on this mission, you are playing a part in helping mankind better understand the planet?

JC: In some small way, yes. A lot of people can do what I do, but there are not nearly as many people who can do what the science team does.

What do you enjoy most about being a pilot?

JC: It is hard to describe. I just love flying. I especially love flying the C-130 and working closely with my crew.

Pilot Jeff Callaghan at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: NASA/Sam McDonald
Pilot Jeff Callaghan at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: NASA/Sam McDonald

 

 

A Sweet Pause After Chasing Airborne Carbon

by Sam McDonald / WALLOPS ISLAND, VA. /

Gathering data on atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane in the skies over the U.S. East Coast can be intense.

ACT-America researchers running instruments such as the Multi-functional Fiber Laser Lidar (MFLL) and ASCENDS CarbonHawk Experiment Simulator (ACES) are generally all business as they monitor their expensive technologies built to measure greenhouse gases.

Penn State meteorology professor Ken Davis views conditions from the cockpit of the C-130H during the ACT-America flight on July 22. Credit: NASA/Sam McDonald
Penn State meteorology professor Ken Davis views conditions from the cockpit of the C-130H during the ACT-America flight on July 22. Credit: NASA/Sam McDonald
Aboard the C-130H, Nathan Blume (standing) and Jeremy Dobler monitor data from an instrument that uses laser light to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/Sam McDonald
Aboard the C-130H, Nathan Blume (standing) and Jeremy Dobler monitor data from an instrument that uses laser light to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/Sam McDonald

They stare intently at computer readouts telling them how instruments are functioning. They note subtle changes as their machines gather readings that will help show where carbon dioxide and methane come from and how those gases move through the air.

It’s serious work, but that doesn’t mean researchers can’t take a moment to savor the day’s accomplishments.

As soon as pilot Jim Lawson turned the C-130H homeward on July 22 after some four hours of methodical zigzagging above Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Yonghoon Choi decided it was time for a break.

Choi, who was in charge of the flight’s in situ (meaning “in place”) measurements, reached into a bin beside a tall rack of readouts and electronics and pulled out something tasty.

He produced a plastic bag laden with chocolate morsels, fruit chews and hard candy. Then, he hopped up from his seat and walked through the hold of the C-130H, offering his teammates something sweet.

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Yonghoon Choi from NASA’s Langley Research Center prepares to share treats with his fellow researchers during the July 22 ACT-America science flight. Credit: NASA/Sam McDonald

“It’s our tradition,” Choi said, based at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. “When we’re going home, we eat candy.”

Choi is a veteran of more than a dozen airborne science campaigns like ACT-America. He’s been taking in situ measurements for some 15 years and has flown on aircraft including the DC-8, DC-12, the P-3, the Falcon and the P-20.

He explained that it’s not unusual for science flights to stretch to 8-10 hours. “After that long, everybody’s tired and ready for a treat,” Choi said, smiling.

On this flight, the ACT-America team encountered mostly clear summertime weather as they flew alternating legs at 1,000 and 10,000 feet. But there were moments of bumping and bouncing. Choi and ACT-America Principal Investigator Ken Davis stayed in close contact as the C-130H crossed in and out of what atmospheric scientists call the boundary layer.

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The cargo bay of the C-130H outfitted with instruments that measure atmospheric gases both directly and remotely using lasers. Credit: NASA/Sam McDonald

“That was complicated today,” Davis said to Choi as the aircraft flew back toward its home base at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Maryland. There was convection in the lower atmosphere and fluctuations in the boundary layer, the region of the lower troposphere where proximity to Earth’s surface creates turbulent air.

An irregular boundary layer can make measurements more difficult to parse.

“The data collection was fine, everything was working,” said Davis, a professor at Penn State University. “What we collected represents a relatively complicated state of the atmosphere.” Sources and sinks of greenhouse gasses are in action along with forces that transport them through the air.

“It’s challenging to interpret, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be interpreted,” Davis said. “The world is complicated some days.”

 

Collecting Fingerprints in the Sky

by Denise Lineberry / HAMPTON, VA. /

This NASA airborne science experiment that started flights over the eastern United States this month resembles a classic case of “who done it?” ACT-America, the Atmospheric Carbon and Transport – America expedition, is studying the movement of two powerful greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide and methane.

It was hot and humid in the Mid-Atlantic region as the first set of science flights began in mid-July. The scene on July 18 was the hangar at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The lineup of potential suspects included gases from plants, fossil fuels, air conditioning units and electrical transformers.

Technician Jim Plant gets the ACT-America science instruments ready onboard NASA’s B-200 aircraft.

Inlets built into several sensors on the belly of NASA’s B-200 aircraft take in samples of the air and atmospheric gas with the push of a button once the flight was underway. The sensors are strategically placed to not take in any exhaust from the aircraft.

Inlets on the belly of the NASA B-200 collect samples of carbon and methane during flight.

For ACT-America’s first B-200 science flight, Colm Sweeney from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at Colorado State University watched from the hangar as the B-200 prepared for takeoff with NOAA’s flask package onboard. Air samples that fill the flasks are atmospheric fingerprints that provide clues about where individual chemical compounds came from.

“Plants take up lighter carbon, and emitted carbon has a different ratio,” Sweeney explained.

Gases have certain tracers, such as SF6 used in electrical transformers, and those tracers stay with them as they rise into the atmosphere as a plume.

“We’re basically getting a fingerprint on where the plumes are coming from,” Sweeney said.

Jim Plant was the lone instrument operator aboard the aircraft, accompanied by science instruments, a pilot and co-pilot to minimize the weight on board for a longer duration flight. The B-200 met up in a predetermined area or “box” along with the larger, more instrumented NASA C-130 aircraft that took off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility along the Virginia coast.

The B-200 meets up with the C-130 aircraft in coordinated flights over the Mid-Atlantic region this month.

The B-200 made lawnmower patterns inside the box and circled down through layers of the Mid-Atlantic atmosphere to study how carbon dioxide and methane cycle into and out of the atmosphere.

“We want to better understand what’s going on inside the box to later extrapolate what’s going on outside of the box,” said Byron Meadows, ACT-America’s aircraft instrument manager.

With the push of a button onboard, a sample of air and gas fills the flask package, which is closed off from outside exposure. Once the dozen flasks are filled, the monitor reads, “Have a nice day.”

ACT-America team members discuss final preparations before the start of the Mid-Atlantic portion of the month-long flight campaign.

After the flights, the samples are sent back to a lab at Colorado State University where they are analyzed. The final step, according to Sweeney, is to model the samples to determine if carbon and methane emissions are increasing or decreasing.

“If we plan to curb emissions, we have to be able to check the accuracy of them and inform the proper policies needed to make a difference,” Sweeney said.

In addition to the flask system that collects samples from the air, several other instruments are integrated into the B-200 to study carbon and methane. Several ground measurement sites complement and fill in gaps between the study regions

This case is far from closed. In August ACT-America continues its sky sleuthing over two other parts of the eastern U.S. with flights from Lincoln, Nebraska, and Shreveport, Louisiana. With each passing flight, the data collected provides scientists with new clues that will help improve diagnoses of the global carbon cycle for decades to come.

 

 

Ten Things You Should Know about ACT-America

C130 Hercules from Wallops Flight Facility is being used with Atmosphereic Carbon and Transport-America which is a muiliti-year airborne campaign that will measure concentrations of two powerful greehouse gases-- carbon dioxide and methane in relation to weather systems in the eastern United States.
The C-130 Hercules from Wallops Flight Facility is being used for Atmosphereic Carbon and Transport-America, a muilti-year airborne campaign that will measure concentrations of two powerful greehouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, in relation to weather systems in the eastern United States.

by Mark Kaufman and MaryAnn Jackson / Hampton, Va. /

Atmospheric Carbon and Transport – America, or ACT-America, kicked off July 18. Here are ten things we think you should know about this aiborne field campaign:

  1. The ACT-America study will last 5 years. Each airborne campaign will last six weeks and fly during every season: fall, winter, spring and twice during the summer over the eastern United States.
  2. Other than studying the transport, sources and sinks of carbon dioxide, ACT-America seeks to better understand the sources of methane release into the atmosphere. Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas—“pound for pound,” a methane emission has 25 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide. (Source: https://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html)
  3. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the digestive processes of domestic livestock, like cattle and sheep, produce 22 percent of the country’s methane emissions. Globally, however, these animals are believed to be the primary contributors to methane emissions.
  4. Both ACT-America planes, the C-130 and B-200, are fitted with instruments that actively take in bits of the atmosphere as they fly over the rural and urban areas of the United States.
  5. The larger of the two ACT-America planes, the C-130, can stay aloft in eastern American skies for up to 8 hours, cutting “lawnmower” patterns through the atmosphere.
  6. During the growing season, forests serve as effective carbon sinks, taking carbon dioxide from the air and turning it into leaves and other plant matter. During winter, however, when leaves drop and plants decay, these same forests become sources. But are these forests net sinks or net sources of carbon dioxide? ACT-America intends to find out.
  7. At times, the C-130 aircraft will fly underneath, or “under-fly,” a NASA satellite called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory – 2 (OCO-2). Like ACT-America, OCO-2 measures the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in order to characterize its sources and sinks. ACT-America’s measurements will help to evaluate the accuracy of the satellite’s observations.
  8. Terrestrial ecosystems, like farms and forests, remove one-fourth of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere. ACT-America wants to better understand where this is happening and how these sinks might evolve in the future.
  9. ACT-America is flying over the eastern United States—regions east of the Rockies—because they provide ideal environments to study the transport, release and absorption of carbon: lively and dynamic weather systems, abundant forests and farms, cities, and productive industries.
  10. Understanding how weather moves carbon around the atmosphere will benefit our understanding of an uncertain climatic future. In five years, says Principal Investigator Ken Davis, “we should be able to better manage and predict the future climate.”