Archives for the month of: August, 2013
Dave Lowry collecting a sample at Nordkapp. (Photo credit: Nathalie Grassineau.)

Dave Lowry collecting a sample at Nordkapp. (Photo credit: Nathalie Grassineau.)

MAMM Lapland air sampling road trip – August 12-17, 2013

Part 2 – Top of the Continent to the Baltic – Saturday Aug 17, 16:00 UT

(If you missed part 1 of the road trip, find it here.)

Wednesday 14 started in glorious sunshine and a 260 km return detour to visit and sample at Nordkapp, 71°10’N. Definitely worth the effort for the gorgeous coastal scenery, interesting geology and lots of tunnels through the mountains, including the 7km long Nordkapp tunnel under the ocean, with 9% road gradients inside. Passed 100 or more ancient cars and camper vans from Poland in some sort of race to Nordkapp. Would have sampled right at the cape, except for some devious behavior by the Norwegians. Without any advance warning the cape itself is closed off with entry by ticket booths, but the equivalent of £56 for a car and 2 people to park and enter the visitor centre is ridiculous, We only wanted to collect a sample and have a quick look around, so we found the first good alternative spot to sample the south-easterly airflow. The clouds appeared suddenly on the drive back south from the cape, along a very sharp boundary and that was almost it for the sun for the day. The winds remained constant from the SE for the rest of the day at 2-3 m/s, but too many places on the coast were very sheltered as the wind was mostly from the land and good sampling places were difficult to find. Seemed to be reindeer everywhere today, even on the beach in a few places, and hundreds in large enclosures, but none were seen in the areas of white quartzite rock, which formed a barren upland moonscape with very little growing. We pitched up at the Austertana truck stop and motel at 19:30.

March of the clouds, arriving from the SE. End of sun for the day. (Photo credit: Dave Lowry.)

March of the clouds, arriving from the SE. End of sun for the day. (Photo credit: Dave Lowry.)

Thursday 15 kicked off with a trip over the hills to Berlevag and Kjolnes lighthouse (70°51’N) to restart the UEA greenhouse gas monitoring instruments, which had gone off in a power cut and needed to be reset for auto restart in future. There was also the opportunity to raise the height of the RHUL bag-sampling inlet as it was too close to the ground. Then the bag sampling transect for the day started from Kjolnes down to Kaamanen wetland area in Finland. The weather until 3 in the afternoon was again gorgeous and up to 18°C, matched by more stunning coastal scenery and the shining naked white quartzite mountains.  Saw at quite close quarters a golden eagle yesterday and a sea eagle today as we were driving the coast roads. Once in Finland there were more mires to sample next to, but  having been travelling due south I had forgotten the 1 hour time difference between Norway and Finland, until I saw a digital clock on a pharmacy after crossing the border. The last leg to our accommodation was a bit of a rush. We managed to start some diurnal sampling in the Kaamanen mire just after 19:30 local time, and as we walked to the bog edge were buzzed by the FAAM aircraft, which was heading straight down the centre of the mire. Next bog sampling was at 22:00 local, accompanied a strip of gorgeous sunset in the far NW.

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Conditions for diurnal sampling at Kaamanen were not very good. The temperature dropped only from 14°C to 10°C and a gentle breeze was maintained even at 4 am. And when you are trying to catch some sleep between sampling the last thing you need are red squirrels chasing each other across the roof above your room. The Neljan Tuulan Tupa hotel is built entirely out of logs and is a feeding place for multiple species of woodland birds, some quite rare, as well as the squirrels. The wetlands also resounded to the sound of a pair of cranes who decided to circle the site, just before the plane flew over, at the same height.

A Kaamanen sunset. (Photo credit: Dave Lowry.)

A Kaamanen sunset. (Photo credit: Dave Lowry.)

Neljan Tuulan Tupa hotel and café. Choose from ensuite or cabin in the woods. (Photo credit: Dave Lowry.)

Neljan Tuulan Tupa hotel and café. Choose from ensuite or cabin in the woods. (Photo credit: Dave Lowry.)

Friday 17th was a long drive down from Kaamanen close to 70°N to the Baltic at Lulea, having finished the diurnal with the 8 am local time sampling. It seemed like an endless cycle of forest, bog, forest, lake, with a few villages thrown in, again under a leaden grey sky. Sampled every hour or so when either bogs or lakes formed the upwind direction with winds predominantly from the NE-SE sector. After escaping from the supposedly moose-protected E4 road and some searching the back roads the last sample of the day was collected beside the Baltic Sea, before finding our way to Lulea. Later there was time for a coffee with Euan Nisbet and Mary Fowler. They had spent the day doing an east-west transect into Finland before heading over to the Sodankyla wetland for the weekend.

Saturday 18th morning was the final leg of the circuit starting with Baltic coast sampling and continuing with the inland leg to joint the flight team in Kiruna, the last 2 hours through torrential rain. The final sample was collected at the edge of the airport tarmac during a quiet period. Total distance covered in 5 days was close to 2900 km, with 45 road trip and 10 wetland diurnal samples collected (see map).

Once the samples are back at RHUL the CO2 and CH4 concentrations will be analysed by Picarro CRDS and then analysed on the stable isotope mass spectromter to determine the carbon isotope signature, already eloquently described by Euan Nisbet in his earlier ‘ghost’ blog. The data will be used to determine if all of the enhancements at ground level are from wetlands and how the extent and magnitude of the enhancement compares with measurements and sampling from the flights.

— Dave Lowry and Nathalie Grassineau

Road trip sampling locations in Northern Scandinavia, August 2013.

Road trip sampling locations in Northern Scandinavia, August 2013.


The last day of the August aircraft MAMM campaign (19 August) was all about sampling the methane closer to home as well as actually getting back to Cranfield; leaving the Arctic wetland methane behind us (until the September campaign of course). The day consisted of two flights, the first one was a straightforward transit flight from Kiruna, Sweden, to Aberdeen, Scotland; the second was a science flight off the East coast of England to sample methane leaking from gas rigs in the North Sea.

In Aberdeen we stopped for refuelling the aircraft and a short break. Overlooking the landscape taking off from Aberdeen, with its many farms and agricultural fields, villages, towns and roads  as far as they eye can see, it really brought home to me, how we humans have changed the surface of the Earth. What a contrast to the Arctic, where we had just been, where forests, bogs, lakes stretch for miles on end, with just single log cabins, dirt tracks and small parcels of fields interspersed in between. There humans have not  transformed the landscape completely yet.

Part of the ARA's flight track, measuring upwind and downwind of gas rigs.

Part of the ARA’s flight track, measuring upwind and downwind of gas rigs.

The mission for the second flight of the day was to sample methane that comes from anthropogenic or also called “man-made” activities: offshore extraction of natural gas. Natural gas mostly consists of methane, which we burn in our home in gas boilers, heaters and cooking stoves and it’s an important energy source. Beneath the North Sea, there are  plenty of gas deposits that are currently being exploited and the science mission for this final flight was see whether we could measure methane coming from a group of gas rigs from which we had observed methane leaks the year before.

Based on wind directions, GPS  position and the timing of the increased levels of methane observed in 2012,  we worked out that the leak must have then come from the Leman gas fields. The Leman complex consists of several gas rigs that are close to each other to form a group not too far from the mainland, and the extracted gas is piped to Bacton gas terminal at the UK’s Norfolk coast.

To understand and estimate how much additional methane in the air comes from these gas rigs, one needs to sample the clean upwind air, as well the downwind air that has the gas rig methane in it; and in very simple terms, the difference between “dirty” and “clean” can then be attributed to the gas extraction activities.

The pilots managed to fly low in the boundary layer close to the sea surface, effectively flying a big box pattern around the rigs. Luckily there wasn’t much helicopter and other air traffic and we could stay down low to do the track of the box several times, and indeed we measured higher levels of methane downwind of the rigs!

Seeing concentrations shoot up on instrument displays gives a certain kind of thrill and excitement, although of course the extra methane in the atmosphere is not necessarily good! Being a scientist can be a weird thing sometimes…

Similar to the Arctic methane sampling, we had a range of instruments and sampling approaches for this flight: one instrument measured concentrations very accurately, but somewhat slowly (1 measurement every second, i.e.  one point for every 100 m of the flight track), another instrument (the one I am working with) was set to sample very fast (10 measurements per second, i.e. means 1 measurement point every 10 m) and then “whole air sample” collection using canisters and air sample bags. Because you can only fill a limited number of canisters and bags during any one flight, you need to make each individual sample count, and fill the canister at the right time. These whole air samples are later analysed back in the laboratory, to give the fingerprint, i.e. isotopic ratio of the methane. The isotopic ratio will be useful to clearly identify this methane to be originating from the gas rigs and hence fossil gas, rather than from other methane sources which then got transported to the North Sea from further afield (for details on isotopic fingerprinting, check out the previous blog posts).

Collecting the whole air samples was rather interesting on this flight, as some of the plumes with high methane were very narrow- that means they lasted just a few seconds- so the whole air samplers (Dave Lowry and Mathias Lanoiselle from Royal Holloway University of London) had to have their eyes locked onto the fast methane display, and fast fingers to trigger the sample collection. I don’t know who was more at the edge of the seat — me or them? Me, because I tried to call out the large concentration increases, or them, because they actually had to make split second decisions on whether to fill their bags or not!

In the end, the flight went really well and we arrived back in Cranfield in the late afternoon, making it yet another long day.  The few days in the short August MAMM campaign were packed full of science, and it certainly felt like we’ve been away on campaign for weeks. Although my brain and body feel a bit bombed out from all the early mornings and short nights, with more hours being airborne than I care to count, I feel massively privileged to work as a scientist on this aircraft, with an extraordinary experienced team of pilots, engineers, operations and flight managers and of course mission & instrument scientists, who all pull out all the stops and contribute their expertise to make a misson happen and work out for the best, always, till the very end.

–Dr Jennifer Muller, University of Manchester

Goodbye to Kiruna, for this intensive operating period at least! (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller, University of Manchester.)

Goodbye to Kiruna, for this intensive operating period at least! (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller, University of Manchester.)

If you stay up too long sampling, you tend to go a bit stir-crazy. Here on the bog front we go out every two hours, day and night, to collect air samples. It’s quite a balancing act, especially after hours and hours of no-sleep.

Off to sample again – the end of the line in Sodankyla. (Photo credit: Euan Nisbet.)

Off to sample again – the end of the line in Sodankyla. (Photo credit: Mary Fowler.)

But now we’re seeing ghosts…too much night work? One ghost, to be specific. He’s a Ghost Reindeer. He haunts us all day (and days are very long indeed). He’s outside our cabin, then he pops up by the met tower, then by the Polaria building. I’m sure he has a name — Santa’s White Knight perhaps? He’s very elegant, almost white all over, with splendid velvety antlers, all clad in white plush. I’m sure he has a name, but we’re calling him Sammy. A bit to the south of us (yes, south) is Rovaniemi, the Santa Claus town where Santa seems to have a business running theme parks, so I suppose Sammy is on summer vacation. Now Santa Claus was the very proper Saint Nicholas of Myra, who attended the Council of Nicea (and would have known the Archbishop of York well, who was also there), so maybe Sammy was quietly sent here by Santa to look after us and NCAS, with its strong Yorkshire connections. Methane’s a bit like Sammy. It pops up unexpectedly in all sorts of places. Yes of course everyone knows about cows, for what is a cow but a walking tropical wetland (at least from a microbe’s viewpoint)? But wrong end —  it’s cow breath, bovine eructation, not flatulence. Then there are gas leaks (methane doesn’t smell by the way – that smell is deliberately put in) and coal mine vents.  But one of the biggest sources of methane pops up almost everywhere across the planet where rain falls – the swamps and wetlands. Like Sammy, look around and there it is next to you, bubbling away gently.

Sammy, the "ghost reindeer". (Photo credit: Euan Nisbet.)

Sammy, the “ghost reindeer”. (Photo credit: Mary Fowler.)

A great part of the north is covered in ‘boreal” forest wetlands (boreal is from Greek for north).  When you try to work out the world’s methane emissions, we can measure how much is in the air. We can even make a good guess about how much is injected into the northern air, as compared with the tropics and the southern hemisphere. But that only gives us the total amount of northern methane production. What makes northern methane? There are giant gas fields in the north that leak; there are big fires making methane that’s carried in their smoke; there is methane leaking from permafrost lakes. And there are the vast soggy forests, the endless Canadian muskeg, the lakes of Finland, the swamps of western Siberia. How much do they make? Here carbon isotopes come to help. Carbon-12 is a little lighter and easier to fit into biological molecules. Carbon-13 is more abundant in methane from thermal sources, like fires or coalfields. But to use these isotopes we have to work out the isotopic signatures of the main sources; especially forest. How do we do that? Lots of ways, but one of the most direct is to sit up all night. Swamps make methane, and it is emitted into the air. In the daytime as the wind blows, methane mixes into the background. At night, and especially in the small still hours around dawn, the methane that is emitted from the wetlands sits close to ground, in the cold still air. We sample that, every two hours through the night and the day, over 24 hour periods. Plot up the results on a plot of methane isotope ratio versus 1/methane concentration (the reciprocal of the methane concentration) and the intercept on the 0 of the 1/conc axis (i.e. infinite concentration) is the isotopic signature of the wetland emission. Once you’ve got that you can use it is working out a global isotopic budget for methane. All methanes are NOT the same – some are ‘light’, rich in carbon-12 and come from wetlands (and probably differ according to where the wetland is, tropics or north); some are ‘heavy’, rich in carbon-13 and come from fires or coalmine leaks, and some are in the middle and are from landfills or maybe Russian gas (Dutch gas is much ‘heavier’). That means we can sniff a methane-rich wind, wind it back by reversing the weather forecast computer, and find where it came from, and identify the source of the methane. Well, it’s not as easy as that, but that’s the intention. It’s a methane telescope. For example, Rebecca Fisher and our team showed that the input of methane to Arctic air in summer seems mainly to come from wetlands.

Sodankyla bubbles – yes we did see them popping. (Photo credit: Euan Nisbet.)

Sodankyla bubbles – yes we did see them popping. (Photo credit: Mary Fowler.)

That means staying up all night.  Mary Fowler and I have just come back from two weeks in Canada, doing exactly that in northern Ontario and Saskatchewan. Now we’re at Sodankyla, doing the same thing. There’s a difference though – Sammy is here to look after us, and few mosquitoes. And the wonderfully welcoming saints of the Finnish Met Office (FMI) have most generously given us a fine cabin to sleep in and make strong coffee – a wonderful place by a riverside. Could science be more fun? Marvellous! (But please excuse the yawning – it’s been nearly 30 hours by now by the bogside, almost as bad as being a junior doctor.) And now off to collect the next samples… –Prof Euan Nisbet, Royal Holloway University of London

A slightly delayed post about Sunday’s flights, as we were all travelling home yesterday!

18th August 2013 – morning flight

Today marks the end of the August flying campaign for MAMM, a whilst there will be a transit back to the UK tomorrow (as well as hopefully some methane measurements over the off shore oil rigs in the North Sea), today’s flights are the last to be making methane measurements over the Arctic wetlands.

As the Blue Team began their morning flight things didn’t look to great weather-wise, and it was feared that we wouldn’t get the opportunity to descend through the cloud layer to make the necessary low level measurements. However, the pilots spotted a gap in the clouds just North of the Gulf of Bothnia and took us down. From there the weather kept on getting better, and there was a sufficient break in the cloud layer to enable us to add an additional leg to the flight plan, making box measurements over the Total Carbon Column Observing Network (TCCON) site in Sodankylä, Finland, which will be used for intercomparison work.

This was an excellent example of superb communication between the instrument scientists, the mission scientists, and the pilots, which meant that we were able to adapt our original aims to take advantage of the conditions. It was of course further proof that the Blue/Azure/Green team were top dog (although the help that we received from Red Team in terms of coordinating with the TCCON site to inform them of our intended flight path was also vital to our success, and definitely deserves a mention, albeit grudgingly and definitely in parenthesis).

–Dr Sam Illingworth, University of Manchester

18th August 2013 – afternoon flight

As the Red Team member who was co-ordinating with the Blue Team during their flight, I must emphasise the crucial role I played in using the chat room to keep up to date with the Blue Team and their new plans, and then making a phone call to the TCCON site manager. Yes, that was about all I did, and I feel very proud of myself.

As I write this (on Monday afternoon), on a commercial flight home, the ARA will be flying around gas fields in the North Sea, and will then fly over East Anglia to hopefully sample some agricultural or landfill emissions. That will be the final flight for this campaign, until our next one in September. But back to yesterday afternoon’s flight, which followed on from the surprise hit that was the morning flight. Coming off the aircraft, the Blue Team were positively glowing with excitement at how well it had gone. We could not be out done, so we were determined to see ours through as well as we possibly could.

I was wearing my Michelle “Sticks to the Plan” Cain t-shirt (from a previous campaign), and that is pretty much what we did. And it worked very well too. We flew the same path as the morning’s flight (except for the TCCON part), and I think we saw the build up of methane form the day’s wetland emissions. Until we have calibrated the methane measurements, we won’t know if this is the case, but from the information we have so far, we think there was more methane in the afternoon. We should then be able to work out how much was added to the atmosphere over the course of the day, which is one of the project’s aims.

The University of Lund's Sky Arrow, getting ready for take off. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

The University of Lund’s Sky Arrow, getting ready for take off. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

The University of Lund’s Sky Arrow also flew today. They took off shortly after us, and flew the first section of our flight plan. The Sky Arrow is a lightweight aircraft, with room for the pilot and either one other person, or some kit to make measurements. Clearly, they took the latter! They also flew over to Abisko, where we have some ground measurements ongoing. We are all keen to find out what their measurements are and how they compare to our own.

Overall, I felt that this was a great day to end on — for me at least, some others are still out there! In between the two flights, we gathered everyone who was around to have a group photo, so we will all have a little reminder of the campaign.

–Dr Michelle Cain, University of Cambridge

Most of the August detachment MAMM team, on the last full day of flying. (Photo credit: John Pyle.)

Most of the August detachment MAMM team, on the last full day of flying. Don’t despair — we’ll be back in September! (Photo credit: John Pyle.)

17th August 2013 – morning flight

Reading the last blog entry, which was written whilst we were in the air on the morning flight of Saturday 17th August, it was definitely advisable for Michelle to have taken a pre-emptive Kwells before take-off! The turbulence at the low levels, coupled with the lack of sleep for some of the scientists because of drunken Swedes out celebrating the end of the working week, meant that there were certainly a few queasy tummies on board today. I had also decided to indulge in a pre-emptive Kwells, which given my breakfast of waffles and half a pound of full-fat cream definitely proved to be the wise decision!

During the flight we were able to get below the cloud layer of an approaching front, meaning that we could take a lot of low level readings over some of the target the Arctic wetlands in Northern Sweden and Finland, and whilst we didn’t see any methane enhancements indicative of high wetland emissions, we sampled a rather large amount of methane in an air mass that we believed to have come from north west Russia. Again, without full validation and calibration of the measurements it is difficult to say for certain, but the simultaneous enhancement of carbon monoxide and aerosol (both products of incomplete combustion processes) would seem to indicate the transport of a polluted air mass, with initial back-trajectory models also confirming this.

On the way back to Kiruna we also managed to sample an elevated methane layer at around 8, 000 ft, which from the meteorological data that we had available to us seemed to be the result of us sampling a polluted European air mass, lifted up ahead of the front. All in all, a very scientifically interesting flight for the blue, or should I say slightly green team.

–Dr Sam Illingworth, University of Manchester

What it's like mid-flight on the Atmospheric Research Aircraft. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

What it’s like mid-flight on the Atmospheric Research Aircraft. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

17th August 2013 – afternoon flight

In this afternoon’s flight, we started off flying similar E-W transects to the latter part of this morning’s flight, to see what had changed in the intervening few hours. I think we saw some similar patterns to the blue team (aka the green team) this morning, although we have had less sickness on the flight. We should maybe rename ourselves the iron (or ferrum) team, in honour of both our iron stomachs and as a tribute to Kiruna (which only really exists because of a huge iron mine in the vicinity).

In any case, we saw more methane today than we saw yesterday, again with a nice gradient E-W. We also saw some high-methane levels aloft over the ocean. This means we might have seen methane from several different sources, but we’ll have to wait for the isotope analysis and back trajectory calculations to confirm that. Sam’s suggestion of Russian and European anthropogenic emissions is consistent with some of the forecast modelling we did, so I’ll go with that as a working hypothesis.

Aside from the excitement of the methane during the flight, we continued to get a running commentary from the pilots about the few caravans and cars they see in the wilds of northern Norway, the occasional Sami tent, whether the cows are small or far away, and various illusions that the terrain can play on pilot’s eyes to confuse them. Not the most reassuring topic of in-flight conversation. We also heard about “mission 1 finger”, which afflicts mission scientist one (in this case Keith), as they have to keep their finger on a switch to speak on the intercom. Possibly this is a clue that Keith should do less talking…

–Dr Michelle Cain, University of Cambridge

The Barometer Podcast

We’ll have more blog posts tomorrow, but in the mean time, listen to many of the MAMM scientists talk about this project on the Barometer Podcasts. Currently, podcasts include Sam Illingworth and Jennifer Muller as hosts, and John Pyle, Grant Allen and Michelle Cain as guests, and there will be more to come in the next few days…

Flight 1

The first full day of MAMM flying kicked off at 9 am local time, as the FAAM Atmospheric Research Aircraft (ARA) took to the skies to begin the morning’s measurements of wetland emissions. Only for some of the MAMM team things began an awful lot earlier than take off, with the engineers and some of the instrument scientists having to report for duty at an eye watering 5am local time! This is even more unsociable when you convert it into in Zulu time, the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) used by all pilots, regardless of location, thereby avoiding confusion when flying between time zones. In Zulu time some of the crew were at the hanger for 3 am, something that even Michael Caine and his welsh fighting choir would have balked at.

After take-off from Kiruna airport the ARA flew North and then West towards the Fino-Russian border, where it then began a series of raster patterns at low altitudes, flying over the Northern Finnish wetlands looking for gradients in the methane emissions as we traversed the landscape from East – West and then North to South. (Check out this podcast to find out more.) Early results are hard to quantify without rigorous calibration, but looking at the raw data it appeared as though there were definitely some detectable gradients in the methane across some of the East-West transits, especially in the more Southern regions towards the Gulf of Bothnia. It was postulated that one of the methane spikes in this region was related to agriculture, as it dropped off as we moved from farmland into more of a mixed-forest landscape.

–Dr Sam Illingworth, University of Manchester.

The blue team, aka the azure team, just after their morning flight. L-R: Grant, Sam, Nicola, plus instrument operator Jennifer in the background. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

The blue team, aka the azure team, just after their morning flight. L-R: Grant, Sam, Nicola, plus instrument operator Jennifer in the background. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

Flight 2

The flight track of today's 2 flights on top of one another. Spot on!

The flight track of today’s 2 flights on top of one another. Spot on!

We followed exactly the same flight path as this morning’s flight. Credit to the amazing  (auto) pilots! Like the earlier flight, we also saw gradual changes in the methane concentration as we traversed east to went and north to south. With the low wind speeds we were in, we should be able to get a good picture of how much methane was coming out from the ground in the region we flew over.

This morning, I and the rest of the red team (Keith Bower and John Pyle) are planning tomorrow’s flights, and checking up on the current weather for the blue (or azure to some) team, who are flying right now! They have seen some high methane concentrations, which is great, but they have a few people on board feeling unwell, who won’t be able to fly this afternoon. Such is our dedication to getting good measurements that we will fly low and bumpy (and so the seatbelt signs are on and we can’t get up) without any comfort breaks if the methane demands it! I’ll definitely be taking a pre-emptive Kwells this afternoon…

–Dr Michelle Cain, University of Cambridge

The red team, trying to look natural (L-R: Michelle, John, Keith.), with the blue team infiltrator Grant on the far right.

The red team, trying to look natural, L-R: Michelle, John, Keith, with the blue team infiltrator Grant on the far right. (Photo credit: Nicola Warwick/Michelle Cain.)

Sunset at Abisko, 9.30 pm, Thursday 15 August 2013. (Photo credit: Rebecca Fisher.)

Sunset at Abisko, 9.30 pm, Thursday 15 August 2013. (Photo credit: Rebecca Fisher.)

I’m writing this half way through a 24 hour air sampling campaign in the Stordalen wetland in Abisko, Sweden. Abisko (68⁰21’N, 19⁰03’E) is about 100 km NW of Kiruna where the aircraft team is based. Methane emissions from the wetland here have been studied for more than 30 years. There has been an increase in CH4  emissions over this period as discontinuous permafrost has thawed.

Why am I staying here all night? I’m collecting samples of air from just above the surface of the wetland (30 cm and 3 m above ground height), every two hours for 24 hours. Unfortunately (for a sleep deprived postdoc) the highest concentrations of methane in air tend to be in the early hours of the morning, just before sunrise. Overnight emissions of methane from the wetland soil can get trapped near the ground. How much the methane concentration will increase overnight depends on the meteorology which influences the mixing height – highest concentrations are usually measured in still conditions, particularly if a temperature inversion occurs. The wind is behaving tonight – there was a slight westerly breeze in the afternoon but the wind completely dropped as soon as the sun went below the horizon, which means local emissions should build up. When the sun rises the atmosphere gets mixed up and the concentration of measure down near the ground will decrease. Because of this mixing of the atmosphere during the day the air close to the ground is cleanest in the early afternoon.

A midnight stroll along the boardwalk, Abisko. (Photo credit: Rebecca Fisher.)

A midnight stroll along the boardwalk, Abisko. (Photo credit: Rebecca Fisher.)

When the air samples get back to our laboratory at Royal Holloway, we will measure the concentration of methane in the air, and then use a mass spectrometer to measure the isotopic composition (i.e. the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12) in the methane. The isotopic signature of methane that is released to the atmosphere from wetlands can vary depending on factors such as the production mechanism, temperature, water level and vegetation type. We’re carrying out these experiments at a number of wetland sites to see how variable the isotopic signature of Arctic wetland methane is. We will then compare the isotopic measurements from samples on the aircraft with the ground based measurements.

So what’s the wetland like at 2am? It certainly doesn’t feel like the middle of the night as it’s not very dark. Although the sun set at around 21.30 and won’t rise until after 4 the sky has been very light towards the northern horizon and there’s just enough light to walk along the boardwalks without falling in (so far). The temperature has dropped from 15⁰C during the day to 7⁰C but the soil temperature has been fairly constant (around 10⁰C at 10 cm depth), so we expect the flux of methane from the soil to be fairly constant between day and night. It’s very quiet until I turn my air sampling pump on and the noise disturbs some birds. I have a few mosquitoes for company but thankfully there aren’t as many this week as we have experienced in the past.  I can hear the distant hum of a greenhouse gas analyser and whirr of automatic chambers opening and closing. No wolves or bears have come to investigate what I’m doing yet. Maybe they’re used to the unusual activity of scientists around Abisko.

–Dr Rebecca Fisher, Royal Holloway University of London

2 am in the wetland at Abisko on 16 August - still not quite dark. (Photo credit: Rebecca Fisher.)

2 am in the wetland at Abisko on 16 August – still not quite dark. (Photo credit: Rebecca Fisher.)

RHUL scientists Matthias Lanoiselle (L) and James France (R)  hard at work on the first science flight of MAMM. (Photo caption: Stephane Bauguitte and Matthias Lanoiselle.)

RHUL scientists Mathias Lanoiselle (L) and James France (R) hard at work on the first science flight of MAMM. (Photo caption: Stephane Bauguitte and Mathias Lanoiselle.)

Quick update on the first science flight, which took place yesterday (Thursday 15th August). We decided that all 6(!) mission scientists would go on this flight to kick off the campaign.

We flew north from Kiruna, out over the ocean to about 73N. We flew through some clean background air (not recently polluted), and also some layers of air that had higher and more variable methane concentrations. We saw these layers 3 times at similar altitudes, and I think there were 2 distinct sources for this higher methane. We’ll need to look at the back trajectories and carbon isotopes (see this earlier post for info on what they are!)

On our way back south, we flew over Berlevaag (in Norway), where Dave Lowry was on his road trip, taking air samples. We didn’t see him from the aircraft, but he saw us!

We also saw some methane when we flew low over the forest/wetland areas. There was a clear transition between low methane over the rockier/drier areas near the northern coast, and the greener areas further south. Both Nicola and I also felt a transition between feeling fine in the north, and feeling rather queasy flying over the wetlands, where there’s a bit more warmth and a low rumble of turbulence…

Flying over methane-emitting regions of Finland. 18:43 on Thursday 16 August 2013. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

Flying over methane-emitting, nausea-inducing regions of Finland. 18:43 on Thursday 16 August 2013. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

Norwegian's South coast, as seen from Transit flight to Kiruna (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller, University of Manchester.)

Norway’s south coast, as seen from the transit flight to Kiruna (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller, University of Manchester.)

I have been working on the FAAM BAe-146 atmospheric research aircraft as instrument scientist for three years now and I am looking after an instrument that measures two greenhouse gases, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).  Today was our first day of the aircraft MAMM campaign, and this morning (15 August) the aircraft left Cranfield in the UK and flew straight to Kiruna in Sweden. This was my first transit flight, and although the main objective of the flight was to basically get to Kiruna, our base here in North Sweden,  we did sample the air outside and had the instruments running. We saw some small pockets with higher methane levels  (not sure exactly where they were coming from though…) and the real interesting stuff is expected to happen in the science flights over the coming days. Transit flights are a little different from science flights, because in addition to the pilots, the cabin crew, flight manager, mission and instrument scientists, there are also engineers, ground operations managers and technical staff onboard. These guys are normally on the ground, making sure everything goes to plan & keeping the aircraft in top condition, ready to fly.  Having them onboard is like travelling with your kitchen sink — the whole team is with you, and it’s kind of a nice feeling, like nothing can go wrong if you’ve got the aircraft engineer with you…

There are a few things about flying on the 146 that are really special and never cease to amaze or amuse me.  For instance, we get served tea or coffee, and some sandwiches, fruit, chocolate bars — and this is whilst we are working! At what other field site or campaign does that happen? Just awesome.  Another thing, that is just really cool, are the views we get to see from the aircraft. When the aircraft is flying high enough, we are allowed to stand up from our seats and walk around in the cabin (check our instruments of course!) and look out of the windows — so many photo opportunities! Or just to look and marvel at the beautiful landscape below us, or the clouds and colourful sunset on the horizon. There are other little things that are kind of special. During certain sections of the flight, we get to hear what the pilots are saying, so sometimes you can a real insight as to how they are doing things (like negotiating a change in flight plan with the mission scientist, or counting down the altitude levels on a missed approach), and sometimes it’s just a chance to learn what’s the pilot’s favourite hobby.

The aircraft is a special place to do science, it is very much a team effort, but also the pressure can be really on you personally, when you know you only have a few hours to sample a particular area, and you have this one go at it, and sometimes you just pray that the kit works and doesn’t throw an instrument tantrum and says “no”. Because then aircraft work becomes really stressful:  fixing a problem with little time, constricted space and limited options to try things out to fix things is not the best, but as John Pyle said in his MAMM welcome blog post “We can’t guarantee success but we’ll work our socks off to give ourselves the best possible chance.”

So, in that vein, let MAMM begin.

— Dr Jennifer Muller, University of Manchester, @jenniferbmuller