In preparation for our events at the Cambridge Science Festival next week, here are all the MAMM project podcasts from our time in the Arctic! You can click through to the original podcast page to listen. Enjoy!

(And if you are in Cambridge, then sign up for one of our events on Wed 19th March 2014, as there are still some tickets left: for 12-18 year olds and for 18+.)

Sam is recording a podcast with Dave in the car on a very rainy Sunday, on our way to collect samples in the birch woodland. (Photo "credit": Michelle Cain.)

Sam is recording a podcast with Dave in the car on a very rainy Sunday, on our way to collect samples in the birch woodland. (Photo “credit”: Michelle Cain.)

An Introduction to MAMM:
In this introductory episode, Jen and Sam give a quick overview of the MAMM project, and what their individual roles are during the upcoming campaign, as well as laying out some of their hopes and aspirations for what promises to be a very exciting expedition!

Putting the Modelling into MAMM:
Sam is joined by Michelle, from the University of Cambridge, fresh off a plane at Stockholm airport, en route to Kiruna. We catch up with her to get her take on the challenges ahead, and what it means to be one of the Ms in MAMM.

MAMM day 1:
This episode discusses some of the first preliminary measurements that have been made by the FAAM Atmospheric Research Aircraft (ARA) during the MAMM campaign, as well as why it was probably a good job that Sam flew commercial.

MAMM Day 2: Sitting up Front and the Kelvin Helmholtz instability:
Sam catches up with Jen and Grant about the latest results from day 2 of the MAMM flight campaign, with Grant giving added insight into life a as Mission Scientist #1 and the search for the Kelvin Helmholtz instability from the cockpit.

MAMM Day 3: Principal Investigators and Long Range Transport:
In this episode, Sam catches up with Professor John Pyle from the University of Cambridge, the PI (Principal Investigator) for the MAMM project, and finds out in a bit more detail about the principal aims of the flying phase of the campaign.

MAMM Day 4: Boxes over Sodankylä and the Sky Arrow:
Sam and Jen meet to discuss some of the results of the fourth (and final) day of the MAMM flying campaign in the Arctic.

Reflections on the August MAMM campaign:
Back in Manchester, Will chats with Sam and Jennifer who reflect on the recent flying in the Arctic for the MAMM project. Listen to find out whether luck was with them, or whether they made their own luck in August and what the outlook is for the September campaign where they will be flying even further North than the wetlands in the European Arctic.

MAMM September 2013 Intro:
Sam and Jen broadcast live from several thousand feet above sea level to bring you an introduction to the September flying missions of the MAMM campaign, talking about why they are returning to the Arctic circle, and about the importance of making in situ measurements of methane. Sartorial concerns are also addressed as the necessities of thermal underwear are discussed.

MAMM Operations: Fly direct with Directflight:
Doing research using the aircraft takes a lot more than just the scientists doing good science: the ground operations team plays a crucial role.

MAMM: Fingerprinting Methane:
James explains his role, from collecting bags of air on the aircraft in order to ‘fingerprint’ the different sources of methane, to driving around Scandinavia and making measurements from the ground.

MAMM Road Trip: Measuring in the Rain:
As James drives in the treacherous conditions, Dave talks to Sam about the importance of these measurements, how chambers are used this process, and why it is absolutely essential that they make them in conditions such as this, which are atypical of Lapland at this time of year.

MAMM Flying: Aircraft love:
This episode is all about the people who keep the FAAM BAe-146 atmospheric research aircraft, her core instruments and scientists in top condition.

MAMM: Close-up look at the wetlands:
This episode is all about the different “scales” of methane measurements made during MAMM.

MAMM September 2013 Wrap Up:
As the September flying campaign draws to an end, we reflect on what has been a rather successful project to date, and also talk about the next steps for MAMM.

The research aircraft flying over wetlands in Finland in July 2012.

The research aircraft flying low over wetlands in Finland in July 2012.

The ARA flying over Spitsbergen for MAMM in 2012.

Find out what it’s like to be a scientist of a research flight, like this one!

Regular readers will have a fair idea of the trials and tribulations of the MAMM field work team. Now, we’re going one step further by putting on a show for people to really find out what we get up to. 

The show is called “The Arctic science experience”, and will be put on twice at the Cambridge Science Festival on Wednesday 19th March. A full crew, including scientists, the pilot, cabin crew and the flight manager will be there, enacting a typical MAMM research flight over the Arctic wetlands. You’ll get to see a life-sized replica section of our aircraft, fitted with an instrument that measures methane. You’ll get to see what the scientists on the ground get up to, taking samples of what’s coming out of the bogs. Best of all, you’ll get to be part of the team, as one of the “mission scientists” who are consulted on decisions during the flight.

You can book (all tickets are free) for the 4pm showing (aimed at 12-18 year olds) here:

or the 6pm showing (18+ as there will be wine available):

Be sure to book if you wish to attend, as it’s going to be a sell out! If you can’t make it, look out for tweets by @civiltalker, @jenniferbmuller, @samillingworth@camscience, @NERCscience, as we will be tweeting pics on the day. Hopefully, we will meet some of you in a few weeks!

Find out what it's like to be on board the research aircraft

Find out what it’s like to be on board the research aircraft

Sam’s latest foray in to communicating his science has taken the form of performance poetry. This is not a medium we can all master, so his video is really worth a watch! See it here:

It’s an example entry for the “Communicate Your Science Video Competition”, so if you are an Earth scientist, you can enter too. No obligation to do poetry — you can make any kind of video you like. And if you’re not a geoscientist, then you’ll be able to watch the videos and vote for your favourite in April at:

Presumably Sam’s video won’t be entered into the actual competition, as it’s acting as the example. A real shame, as I’m sure he’d have won with his lyrical genius — I’m clearly not biased in any way, shape or form!

Image/photo courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Gratuitous pretty picture of Arctic sea ice. This has nothing particularly to do with this post, except that you can get methane released into the atmosphere at the edge of sea ice. (Image/photo courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder.)

Sam Illingworth and Garry Hayman from the MAMM team, along with Oksana Tarasova from the World Meteorological Organisation, are convening a session at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2014, on the topic of Methane and other greenhouse gases in the Arctic:

The session will cover all the MAMM areas of work, and more! Follow the link for details, and do submit an abstract if this is your area of research. The deadline for abstracts is 16 January 2014, 13:00 CET.

I’m one of the few of the team (or so it feels) who hasn’t gone to the “AGU Fall Meeting”, which is a huge conference in San Francisco, where geoscientists of all kinds go to share and discuss their work. (AGU=American Geophysical Union.)

Luckily for me, there are many virtual options so I’ve been following things remotely. As I’m stuck at home with a cold (I don’t want to infect anyone else with it!), I’ve actually followed the conference much more than I would have done otherwise. And I thought I’d share some of the Arctic methane and MAMM related virtual options with you.


If you check out the hashtag #AGU13 on twitter, you will see the wide range of science that is available at the conference. If you don’t wish to read thousands of tweets, then you will find MAMM’s very own Sam Illingworth tweeting from the conference. He even managed to live-tweet his own talk yesterday. How’s that for communication skills, talking and tweeting at once?!


Sam is also podcasting with his colleagues on the Barometer Podcast. You can catch up on the past 4 days of the conference in one fell swoop.

Official AGU Virtual Options

AGU have an impressive range of virtual options. You can see lots of talks online at once you register. There are live channels, which show some sessions as they are happening. However, I have not managed to get a decent connection to these, and have had to frustratedly abandon trying. Luckily, all the live channels, as well as some other sessions, are being put online afterwards, so they can be watched on demand. So that would be my recommendation. You can also see the AGU Fall Meeting Buzz, which somehow collates a selection of tweets about the meeting. That’s got to be an epic task for anyone!

I have just watched an excellent talk by Euan Nisbet, one of the MAMM team. I would highly recommend it as it’s a nice overview of methane in the atmosphere, including the Arctic, the tropics and globally. If you want to know:

  • What are the top 10 most bovine-populated countries?
  • Why did the American Embassy in Beijing tweet that the air was “crazy-bad”?
  • How good/bad shale gas emissions are relative to other forms of gas for the UK?
  • What does it look like when the northern hemisphere visits the southern hemisphere?

then take a look at Euan’s talk! If you can, I’d recommend higher definition so you can read my name in tiny letters next to some of the figures. That sounds like a pretty good game actually — you can play MAMM bingo too, by looking out for the names of team MAMM who feature. I spotted: Michelle Cain (that’s me), James France, Dave Lowry, Rebecca Fisher, Mathias Lanoisellé, Nicola Warwick, Alistair Manning and Andrew Manning (no relation!). I might have missed someone, so post in the comments if I have!

So head on over to Euan’s talk now, and feel free to post comments or questions about it in the comments here. (If the link doesn’t work because you need to register first, the talk is called: U33A-05. Atmospheric Methane In The 21st Century: What Does The Future Hold? (Invited).

–Michelle Cain, University of Cambridge

The ARA flying over Spitsbergen in July 2012. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

The ARA flying over Spitsbergen in July 2012. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

Sunday 22nd September.

We’re off the west coast of Spitsbergen (Svalbard is the territory, Spitsbergen is the biggest island), looking for methane plumes coming from the methane hydrates on the seabed below. They’re here, a couple of hundred metres down – but do they break surface? Rebecca Fisher, today sitting by the window, and Mathias Lanoisellé, who was on last year’s flight, were both on the ship that found the plumes. So now we’re running along the track of the plumes, 150 feet above the waves. But today, as last year, we don’t find any methane that has escaped. It has all dissolved in the water, or been ‘eaten’ by methanotropic bacteria in the sea.

That’s comforting – this is a big gas release going on beneath us, and we know it’s there, but at least it isn’t hitting the atmosphere. The hydrates are being warmed by the West Spitsbergen Current, the top end of the Gulf Stream, which is pouring Gulf of Mexico heat into the Arctic Ocean.

Take off

We took off from Kiruna, sopping wet under low skies. The pilots’ mikes were offline on our headphones, but you could hear the quiet comment  when the BAe 146 rotated and lifted off, climbing up towards the hills towards the Norwegian border.  As we unbuckled the top two straps of the 4-way harness, far below in the murk we would have had the wetlands of Abisko park, where we’d been the previous day, off on our west side. James France and Dave Lowry, having volunteered to do the hard stuff while we fly, would be setting off for another wet day there. Meanwhile ten thousand feet up, we’re given good hot coffee and – surprise – superb chocolates (mystery gift: was it the pilots?).

We’re climbing from 10000 towards 25000 feet now, over the border hills between Sweden and Norway. There’s high methane air here. We don’t know where it comes from, but when she’s back in the office, Michelle will run a meteorological model backwards to find out where the methane came from.

There are three snakes writhing across the screen – one’s methane. Below it is CO2. If they both rise together, it’s likely to be industrial air. But if just methane rises, then the source will be natural wetland or maybe hydrate. Below is the water vapour trace, and in an inset is CO and Ozone. If there’s lots of CO, then the air mass may come from a distant giant forest fire – at 25000 ft this maybe was days or even weeks ago and perhaps far away as eastern Russia, or even North America.

Heading for Zeppelin – or at least a few dozen miles west of Zeppelin

There’s a brief excitement – ozone is climbing. Is this a filament of stratospheric air, a down-hanging tendril from above? They saw one on the transit across from the UK a couple of days ago. The Polar Vortex brings the stratosphere down here: some of this polar stratospheric air rose long ago over the giant thunderstorms of the tropics, in what’s called the Brewer-Dobson circulation. But the ozone soon falls again – maybe it was just a little breath now mixing in with the ambient troposphere, left over from something that took place earlier.

We reach the point of descent, far north of Tromso, and then dive fast to begin a sharp sawtooth pattern – down low, then up, then down again, up, down, up, down, up down. We’re hunting – like a hound going to ground, then lifting to sniff upwards,  seeking out the easterly winds from Siberia. There’s some wind at a few thousand feet that’s rich in methane, and we sample it. Down low, the air is very uniform – some wiggles in the snake, but this is well-mixed polar air. This is very good news for the planet, as it means there are no huge point sources feeding blasts of methane into the winds: at least, not this day.

Then the sawtooth pattern ends. We have just enough fuel for a long run at low level over the west coast of Spitsbergen. This is where the methane plumes are, hundreds of them, in a line along the gas hydrate stability boundary 250 to 400m underwater. We watch the wiggles for a sign of methane emissions. The pilots are watching keenly also: “Two birds to the left… and to the right… less than we saw last time…(an engine ate birds once, which can be indigestible)…shower ahead…

Zeppelin Station, Spitsbergen, a few tems of miles east of our flight track.This mountain-crest station run by NILU (the Norwegian Air research Institute) continuously monitors methane.

Zeppelin Station, Spitsbergen, a few tens of miles east of our flight track. This mountain-crest station run by NILU (the Norwegian Air Research Institute) continuously monitors methane. (Photo credit: Euan Nisbet)

All’s quiet – the wiggles stay calm. Back up to 25000 ft and turn for home. We poor souls who have been on the west side of the aircraft listening to the comments about fantastic visibility finally get a glimpse of the astonishing landscape of Spitsbergen. Dave, Rebecca, James and I have all worked there, at Zeppelin Mountain: it’s marvellous to see the sharp teeth – the Spits-bergen – of the jewel of the North again.

–Professor Euan Nisbet, Royal Holloway University of London

Sunday 22nd September.

It is good to not expect everything to go according to plan.  Last Sunday (22nd September), the plan had been to head up North and fly to Svalbard (~78 °N), land and refuel at Longyearbyen, and then sample and do more science in the Svalbard area, before heading back to Kiruna. But it was not meant to be exactly that way. The wind speed had picked up at Longyearbyen, above the threshold which would make it unsafe for the BAe-146 to take off from there. So the plans were changed in the morning, hours before the flight was supposed to take off, but then even these plans turned out not feasible either, and finally with some resolute decisions by the mission scientists John Pyle and Keith Bower, and with 1¾ hours delay, we left Kiruna. Instead of the two flights we were only going to have a single flight, and still achieve the key objective: sampling air near Svalbard that been transported there from Russia, i.e. sampling long-range transport of methane.

Svalbard in the distance, as the ARA flies off its west coast. (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller)

Svalbard in the distance, as the ARA flies off its west coast. (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller)

As we still needed to go as far north as Svalbard to measure these air masses advected into this part of the Arctic, and get back to Kiruna in one flight, we headed out North at high altitude (because flying low uses more fuel). Before reaching Bear Island, we descended down to lower level at 73 °N, and then surveyed different altitudes by “saw-toothing”. This basically is making the shape of the tooth on a saw, meaning going up and down vertically in the atmosphere; for us this was between 1000 feet and minimum safe altitude, whilst travelling horizontally northwards to Svalbard. Saw-tooths are useful when trying to find the altitude of a particular aerosol and pollutant layer in the atmosphere. The models had forecasted that we would find such a layer south of Svalbard, but the enhancements in methane concentrations we measured were on the smallish side.  Coming up west of Svalbard, we stayed low over the ocean, which was a little choppy, before turning around at 78 °N and heading back at high altitude to Kiruna.

We went up north to measure methane that had been transported there from further east, and we did indeed sample some of that (so, success!) but there was also a whole lot of cloud around on Sunday. And in the way the saying goes “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, I would say Sunday was a case of “If life gives you clouds, measure clouds”. Graeme Nott from FAAM ran the core cloud instruments on the flight (i.e. cloud physics measurements, such as e.g. cloud droplet or ice number, size and type) and at some point he had an interesting conversation with Mission 1 Keith Bower over the intercom, all about bullet rosette ice crystals, and out of focus imaged ice crystals which look like donuts on the display.  Always something new to learn!  We also flew through some very wispy, thin ice cloud which was not obvious by looking out of the window, and only Graeme could tell us whether we were in-cloud or out-of-cloud.

Broken up cloud streets - interesting, even to a chemist! (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller)

Broken up cloud streets – interesting, even to a chemist! (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller)

Although my research interests are atmospheric trace gases, such as methane, I couldn’t help to thoroughly enjoy this flight for the myriad of clouds we saw. Yes, sometimes you get what you think you don’t want, and you just have to go with the flow, enjoy and make the best of it. This is also what Stéphane Bauguitte from FAAM did, who creatively used the flight delay in the morning to make and distribute some tongue in cheek “Complimentary drinks vouchers”.  Yet with what we saw and measured, as well as the delicious Swedish cakes, courtesy of the flight deck, there was enough to keep us scientists sweet and happy during this flight.

–Dr Jennifer Muller, University of Manchester

Complimentary drinks voucher, to keep everyone sweet while their flight was delayed by nearly two hours.

Complimentary drinks voucher, to keep everyone sweet while their flight was delayed by nearly two hours.

We’re been a little light (and slow) on the written reports from this field campaign, partly because we’ve been so busy making podcasts! Well, Jennifer and Sam have anyway. So, while you wait for the next instalment of the blog, head over to the Barometer Podcast site, where you’ll find short audio interviews with aircraft engineers, operations staff, scientists, and more…

Sam is recording a podcast with Dave in the car on a very rainy Sunday, on our way to collect samples in the birch woodland. (Photo "credit": Michelle Cain.)

Sam is recording a podcast with Dave in the car on a very rainy Sunday, on our way to collect samples in the birch woodland. (Photo “credit”: Michelle Cain.)

Here, Prof. Euan Nisbet provides us with an explainer on methane hyrdates, which could potentially release methane into the atmosphere as the ocean warms, and how we are going to target our measurements to find out more about them. 

The MAMM team board the ARA after refuelling at Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, during the MAMM field campaign in 2012.

The MAMM team board the ARA after refuelling at Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, during the  field campaign in 2012. The ARA will soon be sniffing out the methane in the Arctic air. Photo credit: Michelle Cain.

Our flights across the Barents Sea (like the one being attempted today) are designed to assess the methane releases into the Arctic atmosphere. Using knowledge about the wind, the atmospheric research aircraft can ‘sniff’ methane sources thousands of miles upwind from its flight path (note: methane has no smell to humans, but our laser-based instrument is a very sensitive methane-sniffer). The “cavity ring-down spectroscopic” system operated by FAAM (Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements) and the University of Manchester is so sensitive that it can sniff at a precision better than one molecule in every one billion molecules in air – as sensitive than the keenest hound.

There have been many news stories recently about the problem of methane release from the huge amount stored a few hundred metres under the surface in the Arctic, within the enormous deposits of a water-methane structure called methane hydrate. In the past few years, several papers in scientific journals have suggested that huge amounts of methane are already being released from hydrate, and in July this year an article in the prestigious journal Nature modelled the enormous impact this might have (Whiteman et al., Vast costs of Arctic change, Nature, 25th July 2013, 401-3).

To look for methane in the high Arctic, the aircraft flies high and low across the Arctic Ocean. The high flights can measure the methane in the middle of the troposphere (the main part of the atmosphere), while the low flights, close to the sea surface, measure the methane in the “boundary layer” (or near-surface), where surface sources mix up into the winds. By back-tracking the winds, we can sniff methane sources many thousands of miles away and determine where they have come from. For example, if there is an easterly wind, a flight north of Norway can measure methane released by sources far away in northern Russia. This is a sort of methane telescope — or, to use the Greek for nose, a “methane telerhino” — is used just in the way a fox sniffs a chicken coop upwind. Using even more sophisticated methods such as carbon isotopic analysis of the carbon atoms in methane by the Royal Holloway University team, we can tell what “type” of methane it is – for example, whether it is methane that has been emitted from microbes in wetlands or natural fossil gas. Using measurements of other gases from instruments such as a mass spectrometer, we can also say from where those gases originated with greater confidence as we know that certain processes should emit specific gases together (e.g. formic acid and methane in forest fires).

What is hydrate, and why might it be important?

Gas Hydrates (also known as clathrates) are ice-like materials made by gases such as methane and CO2, and water. Think of freezing Coca-Cola. They are stable under pressure and cold temperatures. There can be an enormous amount of gas stored in them, and when they are heated up they release this gas. They exist all round the world where methane gas seeps up into wet sediment in the right pressure and temperature conditions. They occur in the Amazon delta, in the Gulf of Mexico deep oilfields, and very widely in the tropics, stabilised under the pressure of a fairly thick sediment load. In the Arctic the cold temperatures help stabilise hydrate at much shallower depths. Offshore, the sea water a few hundred metres down is close to 0oC and methane hydrates are stable near the seabed under about 300 to 400m of water. Near-shore, in shallow salty water that can be as cold as -2oC, hydrate is stable under a few hundred metres of sediment or less. Onshore, in extremely cold areas where the mean annual temperature can be as low as -10oC, hydrates can be stable quite close to surface.

As hydrates warm, they can potentially release great quantities of methane. This is a powerful greenhouse gas – the warming can then feed the warming. Long ago, in the 1980s, Gordon MacDonald  and Euan Nisbet independently worried that there might be a link between warming hydrates and climate.  An old but more-or-less still valid figure from Nisbet’s 1989 paper (below) shows where the hydrates occur and how they respond to warming.

This figure is ancient, but still more-or-less relevant. The curves show the stability of the hydrates 0.5 to 100 years after a surface warming to +5C. From Nisbet, E. G. (1989).

This figure is ancient, but still more-or-less relevant. The curves show the stability of the hydrates 0.5 to 100 years after a surface warming to +5C. From Nisbet, E. G. (1989).

Nisbet, E. G. (1989), Some northern sources of atmospheric methane – production, history and future implications, Can. J. Earth Sci.26(8), 1603-1611.

MacDonald, G. J. (1990) Role of clathrates in past and future climate change. Climate Change

16, 247-82. See also text of MacDonald’s 1983 comment in and global climate.html.

Bubbles seen by ships – is the Arctic shelf degassing?

For some years, there has been an extremely interesting annual voyage across the east Siberian Arctic Shelf led by Nathalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov of the Univ. of Alaska at Fairbanks. This is remarkable scientific work in a very important and little studied region. In 2010, Shakhova et al. reported major methane emissions from the eastern Siberian shelf and suggested the annual outgassing might be as much as 8 million tons, enough to be globally significant (the world emits somewhat over 500 million tons annually from all sources, human and natural). However, in the scientific discussion following the publication, the quantification of the emission was disputed. Much of this shelf is flooded peatland, which can also release methane when the permafrost melts.

Shakhova, et al. (2010) Extensive Methane Venting to the Atmosphere from Sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Science 327, 1246

Methane emissions from seabed hydrates were also found off Spitsbergen by a major NERC study from the ship RRS James Clark Ross. About 250 plumes of gas bubbles were seen.   The plumes were discovered by ‘fish-finder’ sonar (more commonly used to search for cod than methane!). Bubble trains came from the edge of the gas hydrate stability zone, and some reached nearly to the surface. Rebecca Fisher and Mathias Lanoisellé from the Royal Holloway group were on the ship (they’ve now taken wings on the FAAM aircraft). The plumes were reported by  Westbrook et al (2009):

Westbrook et al.  (2009) Escape of methane gas from the seabed along the West Spitsbergen continental margin. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L15608.

The emissions were in response to seawater warmth, but this was off W. Spitsbergen where the water is at the northerly end of the Gulf Stream, where the warmth is brought north from the Gulf of Mexico.

Is Godzilla about to arise? Is there a methane monster?

In the 25th July issue of Nature this year, Whiteman et al. suggested a monster methane release is about to occur in the Arctic. They modelled a release of 50 Giga-tons of methane from Arctic hydrate, at 5 Gt a year over 10 years from 2015 to 2025. One Giga-ton is 1000 million tons, or 1015 grams.  To put this in context, the total amount of methane in the world’s air now is about 5 Gt, and the annual input is about 0.5 Gt, so this would double the methane in the air within the first year.  They based this number on a  ‘single stage blowout’ scenario from another paper by Shakhova et al, (2010). The Whiteman et al. paper had immediate press interest, from newspapers as prestigious the Guardian and the New York Times to a wide range of  blogs.

Contrary voices were also heard, in particular from researchers on methane and hydrates (including the present author). They were widely sceptical of such large releases. Responses were both published later in Nature, and also a posted comment that is accessible by scrolling far down the page on:

The full text is on:

There’s clearly a great deal of methane hydrate in the Arctic, and much of it is likely to be destabilised by Arctic warming. But is it going to come out as a great sudden burst in a few years? Or is it going to dribble out as a chronic release, as suggested in 2008 by David Archer, a recognised hydrate expert?  Remember also that the northern wetland methane emissions respond very fast to warming. There’s much evidence that at the end of the last glaciation it was not primarily the hydrates but the wetland response that drove the very rapid increase in methane.

Archer, et al (2008) Ocean methane hydrates as a slow tipping point in the global carbon cycle, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.  106, 20596–20601

Nisbet, E.G. and Chappellaz, J., (2009) Shifting gear, quickly. Science 324, 477-8

The scepticism of Arctic researchers about the 50 Gt blowout scenario was initially dismissed by an influential Guardian blog as “narrow arguments of scientists out of touch with cutting edge developments in the Arctic.”

However, later the comment was modified:

The answers to these puzzles is what we’re trying to find out….

MAMM Flights to the High Arctic

Our MAMM flights are designed to measure the Arctic winds. If the 8 million ton per year methane emission inferred by Shakhova et al (2010) is already happening, this outpouring will produce an excess of methane in the polar air above the regional temperate background. If the winds are suitable, we should be able to detect that as we fly north in the polar air.

The ARA flying over Spitsbergen for MAMM in 2012.

The ARA flying over Spitsbergen for MAMM in 2012.

Of course it all depends on what the winds bring us, but we can go searching. This is what Michelle Cain and colleagues at the UK Met Office do – they use a weather model to predict where the air will come from. In the same way that the modellers predict how clouds of volcanic ash will travel to disrupt airline flights, so they can work out where the air is coming from. That means we can move the aircraft flight path, and go up and down in altitude, to seek out air masses that have come from the Siberian shelf, or from the vast Russian and Siberian wetlands.

And that is exactly what the flight today on the ARA is aiming to do. Follow this blog to find out how it went.

–Prof. Euan Nisbet, Royal Holloway University of London

Friday 20th September, afternoon.

After the thick cloud of the morning flight, and a satellite picture that showed cloud cover over the whole area we wanted to fly in, things were not looking too promising for this afternoon’s flight. This is because we want to fly low over the wetlands (at minimum safe altitude, which is about 500ft), however the pilots need to have sight of the ground in order to descend that low. With this in mind, we were slightly worried that we might not be able to get down to low level at all!  But the only way to know what is out there is to go out and see, so we set off with our fingers crossed.

We were planning to head north out of Kiruna, but somewhere along the line some wires got crossed, and the pilots set a course to the way point to the south. The confusion unfolded thusly (I paraphrase):

Ian (pilot): heading for way point N7.

Keith (mission scientist one): do you mean N1?

Ian: no, way point N7.

Keith: Oh.

So we decided there was no real reason why going to N7 or N1 was any better than the other, so we proceeded. And in the end, we concluded that this was a sound decision and Ian should be more involved in the flight planning in future! This is because after flying for a short while within the cloud layer, we found a break and descended to our favoured low altitude. And the first leg at this level (shown below) was excellent for measuring a methane and carbon dioxide gradient! In the figure below, the methane (black) and carbon dioxide (red) shown is for the west-to-east leg shown in the flight track plot. The first half of the leg shows a gradual decrease in methane, which then levels out. This is consistent with many other flights we’ve done. This could be because there are a lot more pine trees and sandy soil in the eastern end, which are not really methane emitting.

The first part of our flight track, alongside preliminary methane (black) and carbon dioxide (red) measurements.

The first part of our flight track, alongside preliminary methane (black) and carbon dioxide (red) measurements.

So despite the initial confusion, and the potential for a complete wash-out, we got some great measurements which will add to those we already have. And we got home in time for dinner (back to the hotel before 7pm for once) so all in all, a most successful day’s flying!

–Dr Michelle Cain, University of Cambridge