Three years of research flights from pole-to-pole constructs first global picture of greenhouse gases

A three-year series of research flights from the Arctic to the Antarctic has successfully produced an unprecedented portrait of greenhouse gases and particles in the atmosphere…

The far-reaching field project, a collaboration including scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography…known as HIPPO, is enabling researchers to generate the first detailed mapping of the global distribution of gases and particles that affect Earth’s climate.

The series of flights…mark an important milestone as scientists work toward targeting both the sources of greenhouse gases and the natural processes that draw the gases back out of the atmosphere.

“Tracking carbon dioxide and other gases with only surface measurements has been like snorkeling with a really foggy mask,” says Britton Stephens, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and one of the project’s principal investigators. “Finally, HIPPO is giving us a clear view of what’s really out there…”

The flights have helped scientists compile extraordinary detail about the atmosphere. The research team has studied air samples at different latitudes during various seasons from altitudes of 500 feet above Earth’s surface up to as high as 45,000 feet into the lower stratosphere…

Each of the missions took the research team from Colorado to Alaska and the Arctic Circle, then south over the Pacific to New Zealand and near Antarctica. The flights took place at different times of year, resulting in a range of seasonal snapshots of concentrations of greenhouse gases. The research was designed to help answer such questions as why atmospheric levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, have tripled since the Industrial Age and are on the rise again after leveling off in the 1990s. Scientists also studied how logging and regrowth in northern boreal forests and tropical rain forests are affecting levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Such research will provide a baseline against which to evaluate the success of efforts to curb CO2 emissions and to enhance natural CO2 uptake and storage…

One of HIPPO’s most significant accomplishments has been quantifying the seasonal amounts of CO2 taken up and released by land plants and the oceans. Those measurements will help scientists produce more accurate estimates of the annual cycle of carbon dioxide in and out of the atmosphere and how the increasing amount of this gas is influenced by both the natural world and society…

“What we didn’t anticipate were the very high levels of black carbon we observed in plumes of air sweeping over the central Pacific toward the U.S. West Coast,” said NOAA scientist Ryan Spackman, a member of the HIPPO research team. “Levels were comparable with those measured in megacities such as Houston or Los Angeles. This suggests that Western Pacific sources of black carbon are significant and that atmospheric transport of the material is efficient.”

Researchers were also surprised to find larger-than-expected concentrations of nitrous oxide high in the tropical atmosphere. The finding has significant environmental implications because the gas both traps heat and contributes to the thinning of the ozone layer. Nitrous oxide levels have been increasing for decades in part because of the intensive use of nitrogen fertilizer for agriculture. The abundance of the gas high in the tropical atmosphere may be a sign that storms are carrying it aloft from sources in Southeast Asia…

Before HIPPO, scientists primarily used ground stations to determine the distribution of sources of atmospheric CO2 and “sinks” that reabsorb some of the gas back into the land and oceans. But ground stations can be separated by thousands of miles, which hinders the ability to measure CO2 in specific locations. To estimate how the gas is distributed vertically, scientists have had to rely on computer models, which will now be improved with HIPPO data.

No ideology, no preconceptions other than general understanding drawn from previous peer-reviewed study. What a contrast to the foolishness that passes for skepticism in the popular press – and blog pundits.

Reading this I recall an earlier discussion in the history of this blog – topic doesn’t matter. A few regulars challenged the Luddite partisan to offer some peer review of his particular point. He wandered back in after a week or so of Googling to offer a single peer-review publication of whoever originally made the point. Along with a “So, there!”

He didn’t get it anymore than do the know-nothing skeptics. The point of peer review is the dialogue and discussion, evaluation, challenge, validation or refutation through scientific means and methods that follows publication. The article he quoted was so lame there was no follow-on. It was noted as an “occurrence”, a point of view. And faded away.

This work from HIPPO has provided such a mass of new information that not only can precedent theories and hypotheses be re-evaluated, new analysis will lead to additional understanding of the complex processes that underly meteorology and climatology. RTFA for a clearer picture of what these folks are about.

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