Skip Navigation

ORAU, NOAA climate experts begin research in airborne laboratory

Three-year journey to the Arctic realized with help of NSF grant

Flux Observations of Carbon from an Airborne Laboratory, FOCAL system, DA-42 Centaur diesel twin-engine airplane, NOAA-ATDD Best Aircraft Turbulence

The Flux Observations of Carbon from an Airborne Laboratory, or FOCAL system, on the DA-42 Centaur diesel twin-engine airplane measures emissions of carbon dioxide and methane over the Arctic tundra. The NOAA-ATDD Best Aircraft Turbulence probe extends from the nose of the plane.

ORAU climate scientists are providing fundamental support to a multi-year effort to measure the distribution of emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases, across the Arctic Tundra. The ORAU scientists work closely with NOAA’s Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division (ATDD) and are experts in airborne measurement of turbulence. Harvard University, NOAA, and Aurora Flight Sciences, Inc., have collaborated to develop and deploy the FOCAL—or Flux Observations of Carbon from an Airborne Laboratory, which is a newly instrumented DA-42 Centaur Aircraft—to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

ATDD’s journey to the Arctic is just the latest in a series of steps the team has taken to help figure out what will happen if the region’s icecaps continue to melt and release large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. NOAA-ATDD developed the Best Aircraft Turbulence (BAT) probe and combined it with gas analyzers developed at Harvard University to create the new FOCAL system, short for Flux Observations of Carbon from an Airborne Laboratory. The BAT probe, which is positioned ahead of the plane’s nose, measures turbulence while Harvard’s gas analyzers simultaneously measure concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane.

Over the course of 15 flights on 10 separate days in August 2013, the aircraft flew at low altitudes—10-30 meters above ground—along with an occasional climb to 1,600 meters to measure the vertical structure of wind, temperature, and greenhouse gases. Flight plans were designed to look for “hot spots” of methane that might be emitted from beneath lakes and the Arctic Ocean, as well as to make comparisons with instruments also measuring methane and carbon dioxide that were based on the ground below the flight path of the aircraft. Flight plans were also designed to compare the aircraft’s measurements with similar measurements made by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) at points on the ground and over the ocean.

While it is too early for scientific conclusions, data sets collected so far have confirmed that the modified plane and its unique sensors can indeed fly to the places and collect the data necessary for answering questions about current and future greenhouse gas emissions. For example, Arctic scientists report strong methane emissions from tundra ponds, although the overall significance of these emissions is not yet established. The FOCAL system deployed to Alaska can help determine from where the carbon gases are rising.

The journey to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

Getting the instrumented DA-42 Centaur twin, diesel-engine airplane to Alaska has been a complex process. The BAT probe was first tested and calibrated in 2010 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel. The controlled environment enabled detailed measurement of the error-correction factors. Furthermore, the results provided a deeper understanding of how the equipment operated allowing the team to move on to the question of how to develop the error correction factor to be precise, yet generic enough to be more widely used by other researchers with similar turbulence probes.

In January 2012, ATDD presented the results of the wind tunnel tests at the American Meteorological Society’s (AMS) annual meeting, which focused on how a technology-driven revolution has impacted the field of atmospheric research. In February 2013, the results appeared in the AMS’s prestigious Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology. Following the AMS annual meeting, the Harvard/Aurora/ATDD-NOAA team received a $770,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to leave the wind tunnel behind and start testing the FOCAL system in a real environment. In early 2013, the modified plane was tested in flight over Wallops Island, Va., and later approved by the Federal Aviation Administration as an experimental aircraft, ultimately clearing the way for team’s deployment to Alaska.

Read more success stories