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article imageNASA to measure greenhouse gases over Mid-Atlantic region in May

By Karen Graham     May 3, 2017 in Science
Beginning this month, scientists with NASA will be taking measurements of greenhouse gasses (GHG) over the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. The airborne campaign is called the Carbon Airborne Flux Experiment, or CARAFE.
The CARAFE campaign will measure the exchange of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane between the Earth and the atmosphere in the region. The Mid-Atlantic region was chosen for the first part of the CARAFE campaign because of the varied range of vegetation, climate, and soil types.
In addition, water vapor, temperature, and vertical wind measurements will be taken. The project will help scientists to better understand the exchange process, also called flux, as well as provide up-to-date data for computer models that predict the Earth's carbon sinks.
Carbon sinks are areas of vegetation, especially forests, and the phytoplankton-rich seas that absorb the carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels. Natural carbon sinks act like sponges, soaking up the carbon compounds that are playing such an enormous role in climate change.
NASA will be using new instrumentation
Randy Kawa, is the experiment's principal investigator. Kawa is with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. He says, “The direct measurements of the atmospheric interchange of these greenhouse gasses will allow us to demonstrate the capability of the new instrument system being flown.”
During the flights  a NASA C-23 Sherpa aircraft from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia will fl...
During the flights, a NASA C-23 Sherpa aircraft from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia will fly trajectories at various altitudes with the lowest being 500 feet above the vegetation or water.
That new instrumentation includes modified, commercial-off-the-shelf methane/carbon dioxide analyzers, wind sensors, camera, and GPS that are carefully synchronized to gather 10 measurements per second. Specifically, says NASA, the instruments will measure both greenhouse gas levels along tree lines and vertical wind speeds, which when combined reveal how fast these gasses transfer to or from the atmosphere.
“If the GPS data is off by even a half second, the flux measurements are off,” said CARAFE Co-Principal Investigator Paul Newman. He added that Goddard Internal Research and Development program funding was used to modify the instruments and develop the data system.
During the month-long campaign, a NASA C-23 Sherpa aircraft from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia will slowly fly at various altitudes, going as low as 500-feet, over the Pocomoke Forest area on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; agricultural areas and tidal marshlands from the Eastern Shore of Virginia to southern Delaware; the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
Also included in the campaign will be flights over southern Maryland; the New Jersey Pine Barrens in the southern portion of the state; and the Alligator River and the Great Dismal Swamp in eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. The NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, also are supporting the mission.
Goddard scientists Randy Kawa (seated) and Paul Newman will be flying modified  commercial-off-the-s...
Goddard scientists Randy Kawa (seated) and Paul Newman will be flying modified, commercial-off-the-shelf methane/carbon-dioxide analyzers, wind sensors, camera, and GPS on a C-23 Sherpa aircraft to obtain regional carbon-flux measurements. They are pictured here with the computer in front and one of the instruments behind the screen.
NASA/W. Hrybyk.
Why this project is important in understanding GHG
Scientists know that of the carbon dioxide emissions produced annually, about 44 percent (not quite half) stay in the atmosphere, while ocean and land carbon sinks take up the rest. What scientists don't know is what biological mechanisms are currently controlling the uptake and storage in grasses, crops, and trees.
Scientists also are in the dark over how long or whether the carbon sinks will continue, considering the ever increasing GHG emissions and climate change. Currently, most of the flux data we have is what's been gathered at towers or is inferred from atmospheric carbon measurements, including those from satellites. And, of course, data from towers is limited to what is going on in their vicinity.
The CARAFE campaign should rectify the problem because it should give scientists data that will determine how well current computer models are representing regional flux data against the data inferred from satellites. This will help improve existing atmospheric and ecosystem computer modeling, as well as land surface representations in both weather and climate models.
More about NASA GHG study, CARAFE, midatlantic region, impact of GHG, Climate change