Washington | NASA is launching an airborne mission that will map the contours of the Earth’s atmosphere to discover how much pollution exists in the most remote corners of the planet and assess how the environment has changed as a result.
Pollutants emitted to the atmosphere – soot, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides – are dispersed over the whole globe, but remote regions are cleaner, by factors of 1000 or more, than areas near the continents, researchers said.
The Atmospheric Tomography (ATom) mission is the first to survey the atmosphere over the oceans. Scientists aboard NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory will journey from the North Pole south over the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand and then across to the tip of South America and north up the Atlantic Ocean to Greenland.
We’ve had many airborne measurements of the atmosphere over land, where most pollutants are emitted, but land is only a small fraction of the planet, said Michael Prather, an atmospheric scientist and ATom’s deputy project scientist at University of California Irvine. The oceans are where a lot of chemical reactions take place, and some of the least well understood parts are hard to get to because they are so remote, Prather said.
With ATom we’re going to measure a wide range of chemically distinct parts of the atmosphere over the most remote areas of the ocean that have not been measured before, he said. While the majority of the flight path takes the DC-8 over the ocean, the science team expects to see influence from human pollution that originates on land.
Humans produce a lot of pollution, and it doesn’t just disappear when it’s blown off the continents. It goes somewhere, said atmospheric scientist Steve Wofsy, ATom principal investigator at Harvard University. We know it gets diluted in the atmosphere, it gets washed out by rain, but we want to understand the processes that do that and where and how long they take, Wofsy said.
The suite of 20 instruments aboard the DC-8 will measure airborne particles called aerosols and more than 200 gases in each sampled air patch, documenting their locations and allowing scientists to determine interactions. The team will use ATom’s collected data on the air’s chemical signatures to understand where pollutants originate, and where and how quickly these climate gases react chemically and eventually disappear from the atmosphere.
ATom is particularly interested in methane, ozone and airborne particles called black carbon, which have strong effects on climate and which all have both human and natural origins. ATom’s first flight is planned for July 28, a round trip over the tropics between Palmdale, California and the equator.
On July 31, the mission begins its around-the-world trip lasting 26 days. It is the first of four deployments that will take place over the next three years in different seasons.