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Scientists Fly Pole-To-Pole To Map Atmosphere

January 30, 2009

Scientists have completed the first of five pole-to-pole flights intended to determine how greenhouse gases travel.

The Harvard University-led project based in Colorado conducted the three-week $4.5 million mission using a high performance jet this month, and researchers have already reported valuable new findings.

Scientists left on January 8, aboard the specially equipped jet, which took air samples while flying from Colorado to the Arctic before heading back down to the Hawaiian Islands toward Antarctica. Researchers hope to be able to better understand how the Earth stores carbon dioxide.

“There’s a strong need to understand what the forests and oceans are doing now so we can predict whether or not they’ll continue to protect (us) in the future,” said Britton Stephens of the Boulder, Colorado-based National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

Their first findings show that carbon dioxide appears to be building up over the Arctic. This may be caused by industrial pollution and burning of trees over the last few centuries, scientists told Reuters on Thursday.

Using a specially equipped Gulfstream V aircraft, owned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by NCAR, scientists hope to have the first “Ëœmap’ of the atmosphere by the time they complete the three-year project.

“We were essentially retracing Captain Cook’s voyages ““ obviously much later and with much more sophisticated instruments ““ but with some very similar parallels,” said Stephens.

“When he set sail, he knew the ocean was out there, but didn’t really know the details. Similarly, we’ve been standing on the edge of the atmosphere – the surface ““ but we don’t really know the details.”

The research jet, known as the High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research (HIAPER), has a range of about 7,000 miles which allows scientists to traverse large regions of the Pacific Ocean without refueling, gathering air samples along the way, NCAR said.

Each of the remaining missions will follow similar routes and take place through mid-2011.

“We’re flying this wonderful plane all over the globe and taking a slice out of the atmosphere to see what’s in it,” said principal investigator Steven Wofsy of Harvard.

“It’s the first time we’ll be able to see the whole globe all at once in great detail. This is giving us a completely new picture of how greenhouse gases are entering the atmosphere and being removed from it, both by natural processes and by humans.”

On Thursday, NASA announced plans to launch a satellite next month to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and Japan is also working on satellite research.

Stephens told Reuters that data from flights on the research jet will complement some 20 models that predict how greenhouse gases move through the atmosphere. Until now, these models run by universities and governments, have been based on observations from the surface of the planet.

“By using the unique capabilities of the research jet, we are gaining tremendous insights into the atmosphere,” said Anne-Marie Schmoltner, who is helping to oversee the project as NSF section head for lower atmosphere research.

“Scientists who work with computer models will be busy for years using this information to refine our understanding of atmospheric processes and the role of greenhouse gases.”

Image Caption: The NSF/NCAR Gulfstream V research aircraft, known as HIAPER (High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research). (©UCAR, photo by Carlye Calvin)

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