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ORAU, NOAA engineers help deploy Flux Observations of Carbon from an Airborne Laboratory (FOCAL)

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

Organic carbon stocks in permafrost contain nearly twice as much carbon as the atmosphere. As the climate warms, this carbon can release potentially high amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Methane molecules are many times more effective than CO2 in greenhouse warming and can reside in the atmosphere 100 years, so careful monitoring is critical.

ORAU and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists and engineers at NOAA’s Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division (ATDD) joined Harvard University and Aurora Flight Sciences, Inc., to develop and deploy Flux Observations of Carbon from an Airborne Laboratory (FOCAL). FOCAL combines ATDD’s Best Airborne Turbulence probe with a Harvard developed gas analyzer, which measures CH4, water vapor and CO2 at a rate of 10 times per second. In August 2013, FOCAL flew its first operational mission in Alaska, providing valuable, low-altitude data (10–30 meters aboveground) over a broad region of Alaska’s North Slope. For the flight, ORAU provided expertise in low-altitude flight operations and airborne turbulence measurement.

In 2014, ORAU scientifically analyzed the data, which showed a wide range of methane flux—or the rate at which CH4 is released into the atmosphere. While on warmer days with strong sun, daily maximum release of methane was 7 kilograms per square kilometer per hour (kg/sq-km/hr); evening measurements during the same period showed a much reduced release rate of 0.3 kg/sq-km/hr. Earlier measurements from August 2010 via NOAA’s Carbon Tracker showed that, comparatively, average methane emissions in that region ranged from 0.4–1.2 kg/sq-km/hr. Per these data, Alaska’s North Slope does not yet appear to be an unusually strong methane source—even Minnesota peat bogs release methane at the much greater rate of 12.5 kg/sq-km/hr. Ultimately, FOCAL’s measurements, combined with other surface measurements, will help improve flux estimates over the Earth’s high latitudes to monitor the rate at which carbon, long stored in permafrost, is being transferred as greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

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