My second and third days here at NOAA have been a bit of a whirlwind, for good reasons!
On Tuesday, in addition to continuing to self-tour (i.e. deliberately get lost and find my way again) and get to know members of the ESRL GMD team, I joined my long-time close friend Carolyn Szoke on one of her tours of the David Skaggs Research Center building, where the ESRL GMD is based.
If you are reading this blog and are able/planning to travel to Boulder, CO for any reason, I strongly recommend you make this tour as part of your plans, especially if you have at least a hobby-interest in the sciences and environment. The tour included the following stops:
- Space Weather Prediction Centre
- The Global Monitoring Division (the department I am situated)
- The National Weather Service
- The ‘Science on a Sphere‘ theatre
I’m very grateful to Carolyn in having me along, and allowing me (perhaps more-so tolerating me ;)) to pitch in when it seemed appropriate. The hope is I’ll be helping out with more tours as I get more comfortable and knowledgeable about the place.
That in itself was enough to absorb and I planned to do a blog entry for that alone (and so I feel I haven’t done it justice) – but by the end of the day, I was offered the opportunity to go flying, so most of my waxing lyrical will be about that!
Wednesday, only my third day, saw me hook up with Scientific Aviation, a small team who are contracted out to collect air samples for the ESRL GMD. It provided an excellent insight into the logistical tasks needed to collect data, and of course, this is only one small (but no less important) part of a big network of various sources.
I rode in to the small Boulder Municipal Airport with Jack Higgs, an ex-US Navy guy who struck me as easy-going but immensely focused. His task as a technician is to ensure all the equipment that the plane will be using to take air samples is all working fine and connected up. So the first task along with prepping the plane itself was to install/change/upgrade/test the equipment, particularly the Programmable Compressor Package and the Precision Flask Package (PCP/PFP – more on those in the future, as they are important pieces of kit!)
On the underside of the starboard (right-side) wing, is a series of intakes which collects the air samples, which then get compressed into the PFP. I asked the question why are they pointing backwards rather than sideways or forwards, and Jack said that they could point forwards, which eases the job of the pump, but pointing backwards allow any moisture that collects on the intake itself to simply get blown off rather than collecting.
The pilot for the flight was Bear Givhan. You know you are getting older when you use the term ‘young whipper-snapper’! He is a charismatic but cool, calm guy and we gelled very well from the start. I’m usually pretty good with doing what I’m told, and since my life was in his hands, well, it wasn’t hard to maintain cockpit etiquette!
As we were taxiing and preparing for take-off, the feeling of how lucky I was got reaffirmed. I got the impression that, for good reason, pilots don’t just let anyone join them in the cockpit. So there was an element in faith put in me too, and I didn’t want to let myself or the team down.
One of the major parts of cockpit etiquette (apart from don’t touch anything, at least without prompt!) is to not distract or talk to the pilot during radio communications. The inside of a cockpit is pretty loud, so it is necessary to wear headphones and a microphone. Internal communications between pilot and co-pilot/passenger is a volume louder than the radio comms. So if you talk and the radio kicks in, the pilot will struggle to hear – and that could be disruptive at best, disastrous at worse, since there could be an instruction to turn, gain/lower altitude etc to avoid other air traffic or hazard.
The job today was to take air samples over a vertical profile. It is important to note, that before the air sampling actually takes place, the location of where the vertical profile will be needs to be established. It mostly depends on the purpose of the data. If you do your vertical profile over urban or industrial areas, or over areas with high density transport infrastructure, of course the measurements you get may well be different then if over farmland, or uncultivated green-space or forest. Weather conditions such as wind speeds and directions could influence the location too. For this sortie, an area over mostly open land and farmland. So, Behold! My expert MS Paint skills below (other graphics packages are available!) to show how air sampling with vertical profiles work (NB: a very simplified diagram!)
First we reached our vertical profile sample site and spiraled up to 20,000ft above sea level (asl). Now that is very high and at the upper-most limit for the Mooney Ovation M-20R single-engine aircraft we were flying. Bear was consistently monitoring engine read-outs to ensure it was safe to reach and maintain that height in order to collect our first air sample. Indeed, we were so high up that we needed oxygen through nose clips – I feel like I was consistently picking my nose… but you get used to it! We also used a little finger-clip computer to check our blood oxygen levels and heart-rate. When we reached 20,000ft, it was time to flip the switch to activate the system, first ‘flushing’ and then filling the canisters in the PFP with the air sample. While the PFP was for NOAA’s ESRL GMD, there was also a constant data log being fed to a laptop on my lap which Steve, the head of Scientific Aviation, was using to develop his logging software.
It was logging concentrations of ozone (O3), methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapour (H2O), while also recording potential temperature and relative humidity.
Once the 20,000ft PFP air sample was taken, we dropped (at least from what I can recall) to 18,000ft, 16,000ft, 12,500ft, 11,000ft, 8,000ft and 6,000ft which is the top of the boundary layer, and took air samples at each of those heights. I managed to find a log of our flight on FlightRadar24, screen-shot below.
After getting clearance from ground control to go to lower levels to do our last sample and head back for base, Bear treated me to a flyover next the Front Range as we headed back south.
What this experience has really helped me to understand is how much collaboration and teamwork takes place in order to do high-quality and reliable science. It absolutely is not self-indulgent people in white lab coats shouting “Eureka!” when they find something to be proved right. Far from it in fact. You have pilots, technicians, engineers, software programmers and more involved in just the collection of samples itself. And then off it goes to the lab where another collaborative group of people ensure they analyse the samples in an accurate and consistent way. People like Jack and Bear and the other (fantastic) people I met on Wednesday are just as important as anyone else in this process. And this is what the layman and people with ulterior motives and agendas must understand. These people are just like the rest of everyone else, doing jobs anybody with potential can do. They go about their job away from the flak that scientists may get in the current climate (excuse the pun). Guys – thank you!
I hope to start working on some educational material on this, which will be directly useful for educators – so I’ll keep you posted on that. You can also find out more details about the ESRL GMD aircraft program here; this flight was the CAR (Briggsdale) site.
Update (16/11/17) – The ESRL GMD website now has a data plot of the gasses collected on my flight:
All the data collected by the GMD can be explored using this interactive viewer.
Massive thanks to Sonja Wolter for connecting me up with technician Jack Higgs and the team at Scientific Aviation, particularly Steve, Josh, Mackenzie and pilot Bear. I really had an amazing experience and hope to spend more time with them in the future – a great bunch of people!