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Monday, 07 April 2008 20:00

NASA studies Arctic atmospheric warming with ARCTAS

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The Arctic Research of the Composition of the Troposphere from Aircraft and Satellites (ARCTAS) is a NASA project to study the chemistry of the lower atmosphere of the Arctic. Specifically, NASA scientists want to learn more about air pollution and climate change in the Arctic.


The environment of the Arctic is warming just like other places on Earth. In fact, climate warming has been fastest in the Arctic, when compared to all other places on Earth for the past one hundred years.

NASA’s Earth Science Project Office (ESPO) and other participating organizations want to investigate the atmosphere of the Arctic region to learn more about how global warming is affecting the planet.

The manager of ARCTAS, Jim Crawford, of NASA Headquarters (Washington D.C.)  and NASA's Langley Research Center, states, “It's important that we go to the Arctic to understand the atmospheric contribution to warming in a place that's rapidly changing. We are in a position to provide the most complete characterization to date for a region that is seldom observed but critical to understanding climate change." [National Aeronautics and Space Administration: "NASA Launches Airborne Study of Arctic Atmosphere, Air Pollution "]

The ARCTAS program begins in Fairbanks, Alaska (U.S.A.) where three aircraft, a NASA/Douglas DC-8, NASA/Lockheed P-3, and DOE (Department of Energy) B-200, will be launched as airborne laboratories for three weeks of observation.

The Spring Phase of ARCTAS, in Alaska, will be conducted from April 1-21, 2008.

Instruments aboard each airplane will measure gases that cause air pollution, aerosols, solar radiation, and other entities. The scientists hope to learn more about how pollutants move from lower latitudes to the Arctic region, and once they get to the Arctic how they move about and what their effect is on the environment and climate in general.

ARCTAS project scientist, Daniel Jacob, with Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.) states, “The Arctic is a poster child of global change and we don't understand the processes that are driving that rapid change. We need to understand it better and that's why we're going." [NASA]

The scientists with the ARCTAS project state that they are especially interested in “arctic haze,” or the reaction of additional spring-time sunlight with thick aerosol layers of pollutants that have gathered over the Arctic during the winter months after traveling from lower mid-latitude regions of the Northern Hemisphere.

ARCTAS project scientist Hanwant Singh, of NASA Ames Research Center (Moffett Field, California), states "We haven't looked at pollution transport in a comprehensive fashion. We can see Arctic haze coming in but we don't know its composition or how it got there. One goal of ARCTAS is to provide a comprehensive understanding of the aerosol composition, chemistry and climate effects in the Arctic region." [NASA]

ARCTAS is part of an international series of Arctic field experiments, which is all part of the Third International Polar Year . The IPY is a large scientific program that is investigating the Arctic and the Antarctic from March 2007 to March 2009.

The three aircraft for the ARCTAS project will be assisted by space satellites. Learn more about them, and the second phase of the project, on the next page.




The three NASA aircraft will be assisted in their investigation with numerous NASA satellites in orbit about the Earth.

Some of the Earth Observing System (EOS) satellites used for ARCTAS include Aura and Terra, along with the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO), a joint project of NASA and the French space agency CNES (Centre National d'Études Spatiales).

Dr. Jacob adds, “NASA has invested a lot of resources in satellites that can be of value for diagnosing effects of climate change. Satellites orbit over poles with good coverage and good opportunity, but you really need to have aircraft observations supporting those to make good interpretations of what satellites are telling you." [NASA]

A second phase of the ARCTAS campaign takes place this summer from Cold Lake in Alberta, Canada, where flights will focus on measurements of emissions from forest fires especially in Eurasia and North America.

The Summer Phase of ARCTAS includes DC-8 flights from Palmdale, California, June 18-25, 2008, and from Cold Lake, Alberta, between June 26 and July 14, 2008.

Researchers want to know how the impact of naturally occurring fires in the region compares to the pollution associated with human activity at lower latitudes.

Understanding the relative influence of each is important to predictions of the Arctic's future climate.

For more information about the ARCTAS field campaign on the Web, go to NASA ARACTAS field campaign.

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