Recent Penn State graduates earn wings in airborne research project

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Bianca Baier’s homecoming came at 20,000 feet. The recent Penn State graduate and State College native returned aboard a hulking cargo plane decked out with weather gauges, sensors and instruments.

The C-130 plane roared above Central Pennsylvania last month, its high-tech cargo running a battery of tests and collecting air samples meant to help scientists like Baier better understand how greenhouse gases move through the atmosphere.

“It’s probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” said Baier, now a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) based in Colorado. “It’s a moving laboratory. You are on the plane and there are a bunch of other scientists and everyone is trying to do the best research they can.”

The flights over Pennsylvania, and other regions of the U.S., are part of an ongoing $30 million project funded by NASA and led by Ken Davis, professor of atmospheric and climate science in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science and associate in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State.

Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America, or ACT-America, brings together a team of researchers from across the country to improve our ability to quantify sources and sinks of carbon dioxide and methane on regional scales.

“Measuring carbon fluxes today is important to better predicting how the biological portion of the carbon cycle will change in the future,” Davis said. “If we want to predict climate change with accuracy, we need to understand how both humans and ecosystems contribute to the climate system.”

The project uses satellite and ground-based observations, and also flight campaigns flown out of Louisiana, Nebraska and Virginia. Those air campaigns are giving Baier and Hannah Halliday, who both received doctorates from Penn State in December, their first taste of in-flight experience.

“For me, it’s been a fantastic learning experience,” said Halliday, who is now a researcher with NASA.

Halliday said nothing short of Dramamine can truly prepare you for flying at low altitudes for hours at a time collecting samples, but added the hands-on research experience she received at Penn State has been invaluable.

“When I was still an undergrad, my Ph.D. adviser sent me out to the field in California with a few wrenches and a custom-built instrument,” Baier said. “I barely knew how to use the tools. But those experiences through my time at Penn State really prepared me for the type of field work I’m doing now.”

Aboard the plane, Halliday’s work involves NASA instruments that measure carbon dioxide and methane levels every few seconds. The data can help scientists see how greenhouse gases are transported by weather.

“Most of the data we collect will be compared to models to understand how carbon is moving around above the surface,” she said.

Baier’s work involves NOAA flask measurements. Air from outside the plane is captured in 12 glass capsules on board, and the air samples are sent back to NOAA’s labs for testing. Analysis can detect levels of over 50 different substances, including carbon dioxide and methane.

“The flasks help us pick out sources and sinks in a given region, where CO2 and methane could have been coming from,” Baier said. “In Louisiana you have the Gulf flow and different ecosystems than in midwest, or in the wooded northeast, where you also have Marcellus Shale wells that can spit out methane.”

Scientists have made progress quantifying the carbon cycle at the global scale, but it’s much harder to diagnose carbon dioxide and methane sources and sinks at regional or continental scales. The ACT-America project is developing a new generation of estimates surface-to-atmosphere carbon fluxes using atmospheric concentration measurements and atmospheric transport models. 

“What we can ultimately do is create a larger picture of one area,” Baier said. “So in the northeast for example, if measurements indicate high CO2 levels, what’s driving that? We can look at measurements and see if we can find correlations between CO2, methane and other species which may indicate specific sources or see if we can detect transport phenomena. We can put it all together and get a bigger picture of what’s happening for different regions and integrate that information into weather transport models.”

The Earth's terrestrial biosphere has been a strong net sink of atmospheric carbon dioxide, substantially slowing the rate of accumulation of this greenhouse gas which is produced from the combustion of fossil fuels. Methane, another form of carbon in the carbon cycle, is accumulating in the atmosphere and is the second largest contributor to anthropogenic climate change.

With help from scientists like Baier and Halliday, the project may improve our understanding of these gases and advance our ability to predict and manage future changes to the climate.

“It’s great to be working with both Hannah and Bianca,” Davis said.  “I never expected that a few months after they graduated, we’d be on board the same research aircraft representing three different institutions. That’s a great story for Penn State.”

ACT-America is a five-year, $30-million project funded by NASA. NASA Langley Research Center, located in Hampton, Virginia, is Penn State's lead partner in the effort. The project also includes researchers from Colorado State University, the University of Colorado Boulder, the Harris Corporation, the University of Oklahoma, Clark University, the Carnegie Institute of Science, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Last Updated May 10, 2017