Wednesday, September 17, 2014

NASA Airborne Campaigns Focus on Climate Impacts in the Arctic

Flights are underway from Fairbanks, Alaska, with NASA’s C-130 Hercules aircraft to study the connection between retreating Arctic sea ice and climate change. 

Image Credit: NASA/Patrick Lynch

Over the past few decades, average global temperatures have been on the rise, and this warming is happening two to three times faster in the Arctic.

As the region’s summer comes to a close, NASA is hard at work studying how rising temperatures are affecting the Arctic.

NASA researchers this summer and fall are carrying out three Alaska-based airborne research campaigns aimed at measuring greenhouse gas concentrations near Earth’s surface, monitoring Alaskan glaciers, and collecting data on Arctic sea ice and clouds.

Observations from these NASA campaigns will give researchers a better understanding of how the Arctic is responding to rising temperatures.

Broken sea ice captured during an ARISE flight over the Arctic Ocean by one of the C-130 Hercules’s onboard cameras. 

Credit: NASA

The Arctic Radiation, IceBridge Sea and Ice Experiment (ARISE), is a new NASA airborne campaign to collect data on thinning sea ice and measure cloud and atmospheric properties in the Arctic.

The campaign was designed to address questions about the relationship between retreating sea ice and the Arctic climate.

Arctic sea ice reflects sunlight away from Earth, moderating warming in the region. Loss of sea ice means more heat from the sun is absorbed by the ocean surface, adding to Arctic warming.

In addition, the larger amount of open water leads to more moisture in the air, which affects the formation of clouds that have their own effect on warming, either enhancing or reducing it.

Changes in more than 130 Alaskan glaciers are being surveyed by scientists at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in a DHC-3 Otter as part of NASA’s multi-year Operation IceBridge.

Image Credit: Chris Larsen, University of Alaska-Fairbanks

ARISE will link clouds and sea ice in a way that improves our computer models of the Arctic,” said Tom Wagner, cryospheric sciences program manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“Our goal is to better understand both the causes of Arctic ice loss and the connections to the overall Earth system.”

The ARISE campaign, using NASA’s C-130 Hercules aircraft from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, had its first science flight on Sept. 4 and has already carried out several surveys of sea ice and cloud conditions. The campaign is based in Fairbanks, Alaska.

“We are off to a great start collecting a timely and unique dataset to help better understand the potential influence of clouds on the Arctic climate as sea ice conditions change,” said William SmithARISE principal investigator at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE), is a five-year airborne research campaign that uses instruments aboard NASA aircraft to measure air and surface conditions and concentrations of gases like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane.

Using NASA’s C-23 Sherpa aircraftCARVE flies approximately two weeks per month from May to November.

Now that the mission is in its fourth year, researchers are building a detailed picture of how the land and atmosphere interact in the Arctic.

In high-latitude areas like Alaska, frozen ground known as permafrost can trap large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane produced by layers of decayed plant and animal matter.

As permafrost temperatures have been increasing faster than air temperatures in the Arctic, scientists have questioned whether these heat-trapping gases could be released into the atmosphere, increasing their global concentrations.

“The exchange of carbon between the land and the atmosphere is very important, but uncertain,” said Charles Miller, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and principal investigator of CARVE.

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