Pole-to-Pole Flights Develop Global GHG Picture

A team of scientists flew from the Arctic to the Antarctic in January aboard an advanced research aircraft, the first step in a three-year project to make the most extensive airborne measurements of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to date, according to a Jan. 29 press release. The findings will help scientists determine where and when greenhouse gases enter and leave the atmosphere, a critical prerequisite for taking steps to curb global warming.

"This mission is providing us with amazing data about carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from all over the world," says Britton Stephens, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and one of the project's principal investigators. "This will lead to improved predictions about greenhouse gases and enable society to make better decisions about climate change."

The three-year campaign relies on the powerful capabilities of a specially equipped Gulfstream V aircraft, owned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by NCAR. The research jet, known as the High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research (HIAPER), has a range of about 7,000 miles (11,000 kilometers), which allows scientists to traverse large regions of the Pacific Ocean without refueling, gathering air samples along the way. Researchers will take the jet from an altitude of 1,000 feet above Earth's surface up to as high as 47,000 feet into the lower stratosphere.

The project, HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observations (HIPPO), brings together scientists from organizations across the nation, including NCAR, Harvard University, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Miami, and Princeton University. NSF and NOAA are funding the project.

The scientists departed January 8 on the first of five missions. Their flights took them from Colorado to Alaska and the Arctic Circle, then south to New Zealand and Antarctica. Later this week, the jet will return from Easter Island to Colorado.

The four subsequent missions through mid-2011 will follow similar flight paths, but at different times of year, resulting in a range of seasonal snapshots of concentrations of greenhouse gases.

"This is the first time that anyone has systematically tried to map the distribution of carbon dioxide and related gases from the Arctic to the Antarctic and from the surface to the upper atmosphere," says Ralph Keeling of Scripps, a principal investigator. "Oceanographers have been doing similar mapping of the ocean for decades. But for the atmosphere, the approach is revolutionary. Each day we get a snapshot of another piece of the world. We are assembling a global picture, flight by flight."

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