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Arctic Methane: The ups and downs of sitting in the hot seat

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Friday 20th September, morning.

After yesterday’s transit to Kiruna and late afternoon wetland flight, today saw the first full day of MAMM ‘Science’ flying for the September 2013 campaign. The two teams of mission scientists once more split up into the ‘red’ and ‘azure’ teams, with the azure team drawing the short straw and getting the morning flight. This was a particularly exciting flight for me, as it was my first in the ‘hot seat’ as Mission Scientist 1. Unfortunately, the first thing that became apparent was that my legs were about 3” too long to afford me anything resembling comfort, although for any instrument scientists that may be reading this is proof positive that us mission scientists do occasionally suffer for our art as well.

The basic premise of today’s flight was to do some low level flying over northern Swedish and Finnish wetlands, and (as with the August 2013 flights) hoping to observe a methane gradient in the East-West legs with Southerly prevailing winds. Unfortunately a low cloud layer meant that we had to fly at around 5000 feet, but there was still a reasonably strong methane gradient that will be interesting to look at during the analysis. After this we flew North to the South Arctic Ocean, where we sampled what looked like methane emissions being blown from the northern Scandinavian wetlands. There were also some interesting methane enhancements at about 7000 feet that we observed when we were profiling, and we were able to make some bag measurements of these for isotopic analysis.

All in all it was a very successful flight, in which all of the intended targets were met, and I can safely report that view from the front of the cockpit was absolutely stunning, and almost entirely made up for the fact that I spent the rest of the day feeling like the male lead from ‘Misery’.

–Dr Sam Illingworth, University of Manchester

Serendipity and science

Friday 20th September, afternoon.

After the thick cloud of the morning flight, and a satellite picture that showed cloud cover over the whole area we wanted to fly in, things were not looking too promising for this afternoon’s flight. This is because we want to fly low over the wetlands (at minimum safe altitude, which is about 500ft), however the pilots need to have sight of the ground in order to descend that low. With this in mind, we were slightly worried that we might not be able to get down to low level at all! But the only way to know what is out there is to go out and see, so we set off with our fingers crossed.

We were planning to head north out of Kiruna, but somewhere along the line some wires got crossed, and the pilots set a course to the way point to the south. The confusion unfolded thusly (I paraphrase):

Ian (pilot): heading for way point N7.

Keith (mission scientist one): do you mean N1?

Ian: no, way point N7.

Keith: Oh.

The first part of our flight track, alongside preliminary methane (black) and carbon dioxide (red) measurements.

The first part of our flight track, alongside preliminary methane (black) and carbon dioxide (red) measurements.

So we decided there was no real reason why going to N7 or N1 was any better than the other, so we proceeded. And in the end, we concluded that this was a sound decision and Ian should be more involved in the flight planning in future! This is because after flying for a short while within the cloud layer, we found a break and descended to our favoured low altitude. And the first leg at this level (shown left) was excellent for measuring a methane and carbon dioxide gradient! In the figure left, the methane (black) and carbon dioxide (red) shown is for the west-to-east leg shown in the flight track plot. The first half of the leg shows a gradual decrease in methane, which then levels out. This is consistent with many other flights we’ve done. This could be because there are a lot more pine trees and sandy soil in the eastern end, which are not really methane emitting.

So despite the initial confusion, and the potential for a complete wash-out, we got some great measurements which will add to those we already have. And we got home in time for dinner (back to the hotel before 7pm for once) so all in all, a most successful day’s flying!

–Dr Michelle Cain, University of Cambridge

Previously in this series:

Arctic Methane: Hello and welcome to the MAMM blog
Arctic methane: What’s the story?
Methane and Mosquitoes – Blogging Bogs
Arctic Methane: Mr Blue Sky
Arctic Methane: And in the blue corner…
Arctic Methane: Transiting to Kiruna
Arctic Methane: First science flight
Arctic Methane: A night in Stordalen wetland, Abisko
Arctic Methane: Flight Friday 16th AM
Arctic Methane: Flight Friday 16th PM
Arctic Methane: Flight Saturday 17th AM
Arctic Methane: Flight Saturday 17th PM
Arctic Methane: Flight Sunday 18th AM
Arctic Methane: Flight Sunday 18th PM
Arctic Methane: Flight Monday 19th AM/PM: Going home…
Arctic Methane: MAMM Lapland air sampling road trip
Arctic Methane: And so it begins…(again)

Michelle Cain About the Author: Michelle Cain is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Atmospheric Science in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, UK, and a Natural Environment Research Council policy placement fellow at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK. She completed her doctorate at the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, where she used both computer models and measurement data to study the transport of pollutants in the atmosphere. She is currently using these techniques to study pollutants in the atmosphere globally, including methane emissions in the Arctic. Posts will come from both Michelle and her colleagues working on the Arctic field work. Follow on Twitter @civiltalker.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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