ATom-2 Flights

RF11 - 21 February 2017

ATom-2 RF11    21 February 2017    Anchorage - Palmdale

Our final research flight travelled back south and east from Anchorage, Alaska to the home base of the DC8 in Palmdale, California. 

As we arrived in Anchorage an day earlier than expected, the aircraft had to stay outside with a heater cart pumping in hot air overnight. That meant that two people had to be with it at all times. I offered to take the first 3 hour shift with Tim as I thought it was the easiest to deal with. Brownie points go to others who took the much later shifts!

Our final flight from Anchorage back into Palmdale, was a short 6 hours that was pretty much a blur for me. We are currently offloading all the instruments. It took us nearly a month to put everything carefully on the aircraft in just the way we wanted it. But we have just two days to rip it all off again, box it up and send it home. It makes the end of the project even more hectic than the deployment but we can always sleep when we get home! 


Updates from the field will be made on Twitter by various people (search for #NASA_ATom or just click here for a full overview: #NASA_ATom

RF10 - 19 February 2017

ATom-2 RF10    19 February 2017    Thule - Anchorage

Our tenth research flight travelled across the northern edge of the globe from Thule Air Force Base, Greenland to Anchorage, Alaska via 82oN. 

This was my first trip to Thule and is the furthest north I’ve ever been (on the ground anyway) at 76oN. The air temperature was a brisk -25oC (-30oC with the wind chill) when we arrived. I always turn bright pink in cold like this and no matter how well I try to protect my face, it doesn’t seem to help! But when dusk arrived, the wind picked up and the temperature was biting on my eyes as we left the dining hall. 

We arrived just after noon and saw a little sliver of sunlight on the ground. It turns out this was the first direct sunlight the town has seen all year! This means a “first light” party with full costumes! Unfortunately, with a 4am start to leave Lajes on time, I was fast asleep in bed by 9pm Thule time (or midnight Lajes time) and missed the party. I was feeling bad/old until I heard that the more junior graduate students didn’t make it either :)

I was really surprised by Thule. The food was great and the rooms were cosy and one particular highlight was free laundry! I had a load of washing in the machine within 5 minutes of getting to my room. It was desperately needed too! I hadn’t washed any clothes since Christchurch and my reserves were pretty low. 

I even got to see the three (one white and two black) resident arctic foxes, who were very well fed little balls of fluff! They weren’t afraid of people but kept a respectable distance to still be considered ‘wildlife'.

We started pre-flight at a nice leisurely 9.30am and left Thule a little after noon (you can almost see the sun!). We then chased the sun west across the Arctic ocean to Alaska.

On our flight, we flew north out of Thule to 82oN and across northern Canada to Alaska where we did missed approaches over Utqiagvik (Barrow), Deadhorse and Fairbanks before landing in Anchorage. 

On this and especially on our next flight leaving Thule to fly across northern Canada to Alaska, we saw the highest levels of pollution (besides the African fires) of the entire of ATom2. CO2, CH4, and CO were all really high in layers right down at the surface and there was a lot of sulfur in this air too. And some of the pollution extended right up to the top of the troposphere. In contrast, on ATom1, when we didn’t fly over northern Canada, we saw fires from Siberia just north of Alaska, but the constant summer sunshine there was no cold dome then.

We also saw a lot of thin broken sea ice as we flew along. Translucent layers of ice were forming over the open water areas we saw when we flew over on January 29th. The 2016/2017 winter saw the lowest sea ice ever observed by satellite and it’s scary to see it in person… 


Updates from the field will be made on Twitter by various people (search for #NASA_ATom or just click here for a full overview: #NASA_ATom

RF09 - 18 February 2017

ATom-2 RF09    18 February 2017    Lajes - Thule

Our ninth research flight travelled north again from Lajes to Thule Air Force Base, Greenland.

The island of Terceira is a favorite stop of scientists and crew alike. The people are lovely, the food is amazing and the sights are phenomenal! For me, it’s still hard to believe this isn’t the west of Ireland, stone walls and all! But then the sunshine arrives :)

Unfortunately all the volcanic caves were closed as it’s the offseason and one local apologized for the bad weather. If this is as bad as the weather gets, I want to retire here! 


We went for a wander around the trails in the nature preserve in the center of the island. It was muddy but a lot of fun!

Our flight from Lajes to Thule saw us pick our way between two large North Atlantic low pressure regions. We flew over the high Greenland plateau and into the Cold dome of the arctic north. This is where the cold air is trapped at the surface and acts as a winter-time storage area for much of the world’s pollution. We saw high levels of pollution such as short lived hydrocarbons that would normally be oxidized quickly in warmer and sunnier regions. 

During the flight we saw a lot of broken and missing sea ice as we travelled up the west coast of Greenland. Some exposed sea surface is common in the area as polynya’s form but I was surprised to see so much thin ice (the almost see through ice in this photo).

We are expecting to have pretty cold temperatures in Thule once we arrive. It will be a change from Terceira! 


Updates from the field will be made on Twitter by various people (search for #NASA_ATom or just click here for a full overview: #NASA_ATom

RF08 - 15 February 2017

ATom-2 RF08    15 February 2017    Ascension - Lajes

Our eighth research flight travelled north again from Ascension to Lajes on the island of Terceira, the easternmost island of the Azores. 

This was our second trip to Ascension and things seemed a lot more familiar, including the warm welcome from the base commander. We knew to expect basic but clean housing on the American Air Force base and we were pleasantly surprised to find a low bandwith wifi set up for us. But the meal schedule still took a bit of getting used to: 4pm dinner seemed a little too soon after 11am lunch! 

Our wild donkey and wild sheep friends were around but no sign of any land crabs this time anywhere except on the runway on the afternoon before flight!

After working on the aircraft in the morning, we took some time to hike around Green Mountain, the highest point on the island. At low heights near the water, Ascension is like Mars: there are volcanic rocks and clinka (bits of broken off volcanic rocks) everywhere but no vegetation. It’s hot and extremely dry but the beaches are spectacular! Inland a little, clouds from the Atlantic collide with the mountains to create what’s called orographic precipitation: the mountains cause rain! When the island was discovered by the British, an experiment was started to grow all kinds of crops. This makes for a very interesting contrast where banana groves, concede to grass and then rock as you look down to the sea.

While I failed to see any penguins, I did get to see a giant green turtle lay her eggs on the beach in Ascension! Obviously taking a photo of that at night didn’t work but the beaches were covered in turtle tracks and nests which we saw when going down to the beach for sunset! When we were here in August, the beach was pretty smooth and there were no nests anywhere! If we had landed a day or two earlier, we may have been able to see the turtle hatchlings emerging from the nests at full moon!

As well as having a wonderful stop in Ascension, we also had a very interesting flight up the middle of the Atlantic to Lajes! 

Just after leaving Ascension we encountered very fresh pollution from African fires with over 400 ppb of CO (highest we’ve ever measured in flight!). There was dust and fire emissions mixed in together and we sampled this pollution at various altitudes for the first 3 hours of our flight. The chemical forecast from colleagues at NASA Goddard indicated that we would see it but predicted much lower concentrations than we observed. Working out why we had such large differences will be an interesting research question. 

After crossing the ICTZ again background concentrations of lots of species increased again just in a mirror image of what we saw going south between Kona and Fiji.


Updates from the field will be made on Twitter by various people (search for #NASA_ATom or just click here for a full overview: #NASA_ATom

RF07 - 13 February 2017

ATom-2 RF07    13 February 2017    Punta Arenas - Ascension

Our seventh research flight travelled north Punta Arenas, Chile to the small south Atlantic Island of Ascension. We left PA at a respectable 8am as runway repairs ran over in time. This meant we landed in Ascension just after dark. I had asked for the jump seat in the cockpit for landing into Ascension in the hope of seeing a cool view but unfortunately we just missed the sunset. 

A lot of the crew have spent a lot of time in Punta Arenas for various missions and knew the area well. We found even more great restaurants and the atmosphere around town on a Saturday afternoon was great! In stark contrast to Sunday when the place is deserted! 

I was hoping to see penguins in Punta Arenas but unfortunately that didn’t work out. With a day lost, we didn’t have time to go on an all day trip out to the island. It was disappointing but I did get to see an inventive use of tyres! 


We started preflight in the dark and the sun rose as we prepared to depart Punta Arenas for Ascension

The flight into Ascension landed in the dark but it was still impressive! The air in Ascension was much cleaner than our visit in August where fires from Africa dominated the air although there was some evidence of pollution. 


Updates from the field will be made on Twitter by various people (search for #NASA_ATom or just click here for a full overview: #NASA_ATom

RF06 - 10 February 2017

ATom-2 RF06    10 February 2017    Christchurch - Punta Arenas

Our sixth research flight travelled back in time from Christchurch, New Zealand to Punta Arenas, Chile! We left Christchurch at 8am on the morning of February 11th  and arrived in Punta Arenas at 2am on the morning of February 11th. Between time zone changes and flying east at high latitudes, we gained back the day we lost arriving in Fiji. 

We had originally planned to leave CHC on Feb 10th but strong cross winds made landing in Punta Arenas a risk the pilots weren’t allowed to take. So 90 minutes before take off, we scrubbed our first flight on ATom and trudged back to the hotel. We have been very lucky that no flight was delayed during ATom1 and Christchurch was a nice please to be delayed for a day this time. 

On this flight we saw a faint but persistent signal of African fires throughout the troposphere. We sampled up into the stratosphere too. Except for some CO2 drawdown over the ocean, this flight was quite similar to the southern flight on ATom1. 

The southern most point of our flight over the southern ocean was successfully spent looking for icebergs when not sampling the stratosphere. This photo was taken by Eric Ray, NOAA. 

Overall we had a great flight and the 2am landing, 3.30am hotel breakfast, 5am bed, wasn’t as difficult as last time! 


Updates from the field will be made on Twitter by various people (search for #NASA_ATom or just click here for a full overview: #NASA_ATom.

RF05 - 05 February 2017

ATom-2 RF05    05 February 2017    Nadi - Christchurch

Our fifth research flight brought us from Nadi, Fiji south to Christchurch, New Zealand, with a little zigzagging across the international date line. Pre-flight cooling induced a little condensation on the outside of the aircraft. The video of that and the sunrise is available here.

It takes a lot of energy to get our overstuffed aircraft off the ground, so after our usual lumbering take off (video here), we flew due south, past New Zealand to 63S and looped back up to Christchurch. Unfortunately we missed a profile over Lauder as the site was completely clouded over. Lauder has a long-term TECCON site which measures profiles of CO2, CH4, CO, etc. between the surface and the sun. 

               Yesterday’s volleyball game had some sun-related casualties. 

With the time change, we were flying during the Super Bowl (American Football national final) where the Falcons played the Patriots in Houston. The aircraft was under a sports embargo through the whole flight so no-one spoiled the result for anyone else. I polled the aircraft and found a nearly even split of Falcons and Patriots fan, although those against the Patriots really seemed to hate them! I don’t know enough about American football to get all the reasons why but I do enjoy watching it. It’s no substitute for a good rugby game but its not a bad replacement! Matt Berry and Dave Tanner from Georgia Tech in Atlanta (pictured) managed to set up a projector for us to watch it at the hotel on arrival and it was definitely worth staying up for! Sorry Dave! 

This is austral summer and New Zealand sees a lot more sunshine that on our trip last August. This was a flight of contrasts where we saw CO2 uptake over the southern ocean and an extensive pollution layer between 4 and 9 km. Overall the Pacific was a lot cleaner on ATom1 in August than ATom2 in February and the models attributed much of that pollution to fires in Africa! 


Updates from the field will be made on Twitter by various people (search for #NASA_ATom or just click here for a full overview: #NASA_ATom.

RF04 - 03 February 2017

ATom-2 RF04    03 February 2017    Kona - Nadi

Our fourth research flight brought us from to Kona, Hawaii to Nadi, Fiji across both the equator and over the international date line a number of times. As we departed from Kona, the winds were picking up and the volcanic smog (vog) was beginning to lift from over the island. 

We crossed the chemical equator at about 2oN when all the long lived gas species dropped. The southern hemisphere is a much smaller source of most human emitted gases and mixing between the northern and southern hemisphere is slow so concentrations of many trace gases are smaller: CO went from background values of about 80 ppb to less than 50 ppb, while CO2, CH4, O3, NOy all dropped at the same time.

We had to modify our planned flight track as large scale weather systems spang up as we completed our flight. Meteorologist Eric Ray was on hand to advise our navigator Steve to allow us to replot our course. Here Steve Wofsy and Eric Ray (Mission Science) pose with an RF04 poster.

When we landed in beautiful and green Fiji, we rented cars to bring us to the hotel. It was good to be back driving on the ‘correct’ side of the road although getting back into left hand drive thinking took a little time after 9+ hours of flying. 

We spent the morning of our day in Fiji at the aircraft preparing for RF05 the next day but that left us a little time to get groceries. And an epic volley ball game developed between scientists and crew before dinner while I lounged in the shade of the pool (I’m too short to be useful at volleyball!). The only winner from that game seemed to be the sun who managed to claim a few sunburn victims. 


Updates from the field will be made on Twitter by various people (search for #NASA_ATom or just click here for a full overview: #NASA_ATom.

RF03 - 01 February 2017

ATom-2 RF03    01 February 2017    Anchorage - Kona

Our third research flight brought us from Anchorage, Alaska to Kona, Hawaii through both very clean and very polluted air. 

We brought warm weather with us from California and Anchorage was a toasty 20-30F (right around freezing). This was much warmer than the week before, which was below negative F! Anchorage has finally experienced above average snow for the first time in a few years and every local I spoke with was thrilled! Boston residents would not be as happy :) In Anchorage, we were stationed in the Fedex maintenance hanger at the airport and the area around the instruments reached 35oC before take off! 

For our day in Anchorage, the mountains were shrouded in cloud but on the morning we left we finally saw the mountains behind Anchorage as the cloud descended even further to let the mountains peak through.    

After leaving Anchorage we weaved our way through the volcanic mountains of the Aleutian Islands. We descending to 12 feet over the runway of Cold Bay as we completed a missed approach. A video of the missed approach is available here

After many profiles in which we sampled both clean air and air influenced by Asian pollution, we descended to Hawaii to find the thickest layer of volcanic smog I’ve ever seen. We could barely see Mauna Loa peeking out through the haze. The volcanic smog was from Kilueua, the volcano which is currently flowing into the sea on the south coast of the big island, and the largest source of SO2 in the USA. Unfortunately we couldn’t even see the ground coming into land so I missed that view. We saw large amounts of sulfur in the haze layer but we also saw a surprisingly large amount of organic species, suggesting that local pollution (possibly from the north) was also making the haze a little thicker. 


Updates from the field will be made on Twitter by various people (search for #NASA_ATom or just click here for a full overview: #NASA_ATom.

RF02 - 29 January 2017

ATom-2 RF02    29 January 2017    Palmdale - Anchorage

Our second research flight brought us from Palmdale, California to Anchorage, Alaska. 

Doors opened at 6.30am just as the sun was rising on Palmdale and we had many hours of twilight as we dipped over Deadhorse and Barrow (now know as Utqiaġvik on the north coast of Alaska. Sunrise in Palmale from the cockpit of the DC8 looked pretty special (left).

I’m trying to continue taking photos with a sign indicating the flight. It’ll be a good way to tell how much we age through the whole project! 

While most of our flight sampled tropospheric air, we also sampled air in the stratosphere,  with ozone mixing ratios topping out at 990 ppb - we were taking bets (for bragging rights) on ozone hitting 1 ppm (1000 ppb) but alas, we didn’t see it. In the stratosphere, the CO was the lowest I’ve ever seen (17 ppb) and N2O also dropped and we estimated that the air in the stratosphere last saw the surface of the earth about 6 years ago. It was like looking back in time! CO and N2O are low in the stratosphere for different reasons; CO only lives for a month (on average) and doesn’t mix into the stratosphere but N2O gets destroyed by the same UV light that produces ozone in the stratosphere. 

There was just enough light in twilight for us to see the thin and broken sea ice just to the west of Barrow. By the end of January, the sea ice is usually more complete and thicker but 2016 saw the minimum of both arctic and antarctic sea ice, which hasn’t yet recovered. 

After seeing the broken and new sea ice at 78oN last August, I’m not as surprised about the lack of solid sea ice near Barrow but it was still disappointing to see

I posted videos of our 500 ft run over the Gulf of Alaska and our missed approach  at BRW to Twitter. Click on the links to watch those videos. 


Updates from the field will be made on Twitter by various people (search for #NASA_ATom or just click here for a full overview: #NASA_ATom.

 © Roisin Commane 2018