Archives for posts with tag: methane

The latest in a series of journal articles based the MAMM project field work has been published today. The article (A cautionary tale: A study of a methane enhancement over the North Sea) is initially behind a paywall, but will become freely available after 6 months. Tweet me at @civiltalker if you want to request a copy.

After many moons of data analysis, and countless graphs and figures, the paper is finally out. It seems a long time ago that I missed out on a flight that circuited a gas field in the North Sea, looking for any methane that might has escaped the gas rigs or pipes. Nearly 4 years on, the work has been published in a peer-reviewed publication, and we can all relax bask in its glory!

As it’s paywalled for the first 6 months, I thought I would bash out a quick post about it here, even though it’s technically not about Arctic methane, as we sampled off the east coast of the UK. But it was a flight on the way back from the Arctic, at the end of our 2013 field campaign, during which we took advantage of the weather to get some good science in.

The idea was this. The wind was blowing in from the North Atlantic, over the UK, and then out over the North Sea. We (as in, the rest of the team except me) flew round and round the Leman gas field at low altitude, to see if we could see methane escaping from the gas field. This is what we saw…

North Sea gas rig

Measuring methane during a flight around a North Sea gas rig. Photo credit: John Pyle.

The flight track from Aberdeen to Cranfield, with a detour around the North Sea. Colours show methane measured on board the aircraft.

The flight track from Aberdeen to Cranfield, with a detour around the North Sea. Colours show methane measured on board the aircraft.


Methane observed around the Leman Gas field

Methane observed during the flight, zoomed in around the Leman Gas field. Wind barbs show the wind direction. The thin blue line represents the coast of East Anglia.

The wind barbs show that the wind was coming from the North West. The colours show the amount of methane we measured in the air, during this flight at about 80m above sea level, and the red box is the rough location of the gas field area. On first glance, you can see more yellow (ie more methane) can be seen downwind of the gas field. But as you may have guessed (the paper is called “A cautionary tale” after all), this isn’t the whole story.

We had a three-pronged approach to analysing the data.

  1. We worked out theoretically how much methane would have to be emitted from the gas field region to explain our results by a gas field source alone. It was quite a lot! However, we have no idea if this was a one off pulse of emissions, or a continuous release. In the former case, a large but short pulse isn’t too surprising. As a continuous release though, it would be a huge amount in total!
  2. We modelled the scenario, using the UK’s emissions inventory, which is a map which tells you how much methane is emitted in a year. So we assume it’s emitted at the same rate throughout the year (not a perfect assumption, but we have nothing better to go on), and use a meteorological model to blow the methane through the atmosphere by the wind. Then we see how much methane arrives at the location of the aircraft. The answer was “not enough”. We had to add an additional source of methane to the North Sea gas field area to get the model to look like the observations.
  3. Then we worked out the amount of carbon-13 in the methane source. The amount of carbon-13 in methane varies according to its source. Natural gas has a lot of it, and is described as heavy compared to average (the atmospheric average has more carbon-12). Biogenic sources (wetlands, agriculture) has less, and so is described as light. To our surprise, the carbon-13 isotopes showed that our methane did not look like natural gas from the North Sea rigs. It was too light!

How to reconcile these somewhat contradictory analyses?

We have two possibilities. One is that the methane source is not from the gas rigs, but is from the land. Perhaps some kind of industrial process that emits a short pulse of methane. Maybe our model is not quite good enough to capture the local winds, and that explains why we don’t reproduce the right pattern if we include an extra source on land. In this case, it is just by chance that we see the methane downwind of a gas field, as it’s coming from the land.

Or, the other is that maybe we have a combination of methane sources. Some additional methane (75%) is coming from the land, above what is in the inventory. And the remaining 25% is coming from the gas fields. This is consistent with the carbon-13 isotopes, and perhaps feels intuitively a little more plausible. However I don’t think there’s evidence that tips the balance either way, so both options may be possible.

So why is this a cautionary tale? Surely not just that science is hard and data is messy! No, the key message is that if we had not measured the isotopes, we could easily have assumed that the methane was indeed all coming from the gas rigs. We could have concluded that there was a large fugitive emission from this gas field on this day. It’s a reminder to ourselves, and hopefully others, to refrain from jumping to conclusions, and to make sure you collect as much relevant data as you can to explain your results thoroughly.

–Dr Michelle Cain, University of Cambridge

The paper is:

Cain, M., et al. (2017), A cautionary tale: A study of a methane enhancement over the North SeaJ. Geophys. Res. Atmos.122, doi:10.1002/2017JD026626.

More info on methane isotopes in this blog post.


It’s been a while since we posted here! After the intensity of the field work, the MAMM team has spent the last few years analysing the results, running computer models, and some of the team have even found the time to get married (not to each other!) or have a baby. Suffice to say, we have been busy.

Now the research has officially ended, we have published — or are in the process of getting published — many journal articles. Below is a list of those that are already published. Most are freely available by clicking on the title of the article.

As they are scientific articles, try as we might, they may not be the easiest to read for the uninitiated. So in time, we will post here some summary blog posts. In the interim, you can take a look at the poster below for some pretty pictures and a few highlights from MAMM without all the gory details.

If you are new here and have no idea what I’m on about, you can read a brief introduction to this blog here, or a slightly longer introduction to the project here.


MAMM research highlight poster

Some highlights from our Arctic Methane research.


Publications so far:

Nisbet, E. G., E. J. Dlugokencky, M. R. Manning, D. Lowry, R. E. Fisher, J. L. France, S. E. Michel, J. B. Miller, J. W. C. White, B. Vaughn, P. Bousquet, J. A. Pyle, N. J. Warwick, M. Cain, R. Brownlow, G. Zazzeri, M. Lanoisellé, A. C. Manning, E. Gloor, D. E. J. Worthy, E.-G. Brunke, C. Labuschagne, E. W. Wolff, A. L. Ganesan (2016), Rising atmospheric methane: 2007–2014 growth and isotopic shift, Global Biogeochem. Cycles, 30, doi:10.1002/2016GB005406.

Myhre, C. L., B. Ferré, S. M. Platt, A. Silyakova, O. Hermansen, G. Allen, I. Pisso, N. Schmidbauer, A.Stohl, J.Pitt, P.Jansson, J.Greinert, C. Percival, A.M.Fjaeraa, S.J.O’Shea, M. Gallagher, M.LeBreton, K.N.Bower, S.J.B.Bauguitte, S.Dalsøren, S. Vadakkepuliyambatta, R. E. Fisher, E.G.Nisbet, D.Lowry, G.Myhre, J.A.Pyle, M.Cain, and J. Mienert (2016), Extensive release of methane from Arctic seabed west of Svalbard during summer 2014 does not influence the atmosphere, Geophys. Res. Lett., 43, 46244631, doi:10.1002/2016GL068999.

O’Shea, S. J., Allen, G., Gallagher, M. W., Bower, K., Illingworth, S. M., Muller, J. B. A., Jones, B. T., Percival, C. J., Bauguitte, S. J-B., Cain, M., Warwick, N., Quiquet, A., Skiba, U., Drewer, J., Dinsmore, K., Nisbet, E. G., Lowry, D., Fisher, R. E., France, J. L., Aurela, M., Lohila, A., Hayman, G., George, C., Clark, D. B., Manning, A. J., Friend, A. D., and Pyle, J. (2014) Methane and carbon dioxide fluxes and their regional scalability for the European Arctic wetlands during the MAMM project in summer 2012, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 13159-13174, doi:10.5194/acp-14-13159-2014.

Allen, G., Illingworth, S. M., O’Shea, S. J., Newman, S., Vance, A., Bauguitte, S. J.-B., Marenco, F., Kent, J., Bower, K., Gallagher, M. W., Muller, J., Percival, C. J., Harlow, C., Lee, J., and Taylor, J. P. (2014) Atmospheric composition and thermodynamic retrievals from the ARIES airborne TIR-FTS system – Part 2: Validation and results from aircraft campaigns, Atmos. Meas. Tech., 7, 4401-4416, doi:10.5194/amt-7-4401-2014.

Pitt, J. R., Le Breton, M., Allen, G., Percival, C. J., Gallagher, M. W., Bauguitte, S. J.-B., O’Shea, S. J., Muller, J. B. A., Zahniser, M. S., Pyle, J., and Palmer, P. I. (2016) The development and evaluation of airborne in situ N2O and CH4 sampling using a quantum cascade laser absorption spectrometer (QCLAS), Atmos. Meas. Tech., 9, 63-77, doi:10.5194/amt-9-63-2016.

Jones, B. T.,  J.B.A. Muller, S. J. O’Shea, A. Bacak, M. Le Breton, T. J. Bannan, K. E. Leather, A. Murray Booth, S. Illingworth, K. Bower, M. W. Gallagher, G. Allen, D. E. Shallcross, S. J.-B. Bauguitte, J. A. Pyle, C. J. Percival (2014) Airborne measurements of HC(O)OH in the European Arctic: A winter – summer comparison, 99, 556–567, DOI:10.1016/j.atmosenv.2014.10.030.

Dinsmore, K. J., Drewer, J., Levy, P. E., George, C., Lohila, A., Aurela, M., and Skiba, U.: Growing season CH4 and N2O fluxes from a sub-arctic landscape in northern Finland, Biogeosciences Discuss., doi:10.5194/bg-2016-238, in review, 2016.

Warwick, N. J., Cain, M. L., Fisher, R., France, J. L., Lowry, D., Michel, S. E., Nisbet, E. G., Vaughn, B. H., White, J. W. C., and Pyle, J. A.: Using δ13C-CH4 and δD-CH4 to constrain Arctic methane emissions, Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss., doi:10.5194/acp-2016-408, in review, 2016.

This week in Kiruna, Sweden was my first field trip and first time north of the Arctic Circle. This time of the year there is 24 hour daylight, a stark contrast to the vision I had of Santa Claus’ home – who knew that in Lapland you have to pack sunscreen! It all makes sense if you think about the reason for the field trip, the wetlands, and how as the temperature gets warmer methane is released.

On Monday afternoon I had my first flight, and not only was the science experience great but the view was spectacular!

Wetlands out of the window of my first science flight (Photo: Ines Heimann)

Wetlands out of the window of my first science flight (Photo: Ines Heimann)

We flew two different low East-West legs from Kiruna over the Finnish wetlands (most likely the more brownish areas, see photo). What I did not expect was such a bumpy ride: even with very low winds, 500 ft above ground means lots of little air holes and little bumps! Luckily, one of the science aims was to profile up to higher altitudes, to assess the local atmosphere’s vertical structure.

Inside the aircraft. (Photo: Ines Heimann)

Inside the aircraft. (Photo: Ines Heimann)

Seeing the measurements in real time while flying is definitely a wonderful experience! It took a while to get my first plots working, but afterwards, every little variation I spotted in methane was a highlight. The flight for me was therefore not as “dull” as the Mission Scientist 1 (an old hand at this) called it.

An interesting aspect of the flights was the discussions over the headphones deciding whether to continue the planned flight or to change altitude to get a better idea of concentrations or fluxes.

The flying on Monday was followed by yet another first-time experience: flight planning for Thursday – no mean feat! The office space in a hangar did help to imagine a plane journey!

Inside the hangar, where our office was based. (Photo: Ines Heimann)

Inside the hangar, where our office was based. (Photo: Ines Heimann)

It is only when I helped produce a plan that I realised how much work goes into a successful research flight and a successful measurement campaign. I learned that weather is probably the most important but also variable factor.

Considering the rain, wind and cloud forecast for Thursday, we prepared two different sortie plans, considering timings, distances and the altitudes for the measurements to ensure the fuel would bring us back to Kiruna.

Unfortunately Thursday arrived with a near constant cloud cover making flying at low altitudes impossible due to bad visibility. We tried our luck and found a gap south of Kiruna and managed to fly a quarter of our flight track at the desired altitude of 1000 ft under the clouds. Lucky me, who took an anti-sickness pill before take-off!

A cloudy day for flying over the wetlands. (Photo: Ines Heimann)

A cloudy day for flying over the wetlands. (Photo: Ines Heimann)

The rain arrived soon after the first leg and we ended up profiling up and down the atmosphere searching for different methane layers transported from other regions and sources. Analysis will show whether we got lucky!

In conclusion, this week was full of interesting and fascinating new experiences, and showed me how exciting science can be and how much we depend on our environment!

Ines Heimann (University of Cambridge)

Tuesday 1 to Wednesday 2 July 2014

For the previous 2 days of the MAGIC campaign we have carried out work around Svalbard to look for methane hydrate emissions off the west coast of the archipelago and to test a new inertial navigation system at high latitudes.

On Tuesday we left Kiruna in Northern Sweden at 0900 UTC (which is another way of saying GMT), transiting at high level before descending to 100 ft above sea level to rendezvous with the Norwegian research ship, the RV Helmer Hanssen, currently carrying out a survey of the methane above seabed bubble plumes, and looking for elevated methane in the atmosphere. We flew past the ship twice before heading to Longyearbyen to refuel and prepare for the next sortie of the day.

The second sortie was a 1400 UTC take off heading out to 10°E then to 84°N at 27000 ft. Stratospheric air was encountered at these high latitudes. Following a leg at 84°N across to 20°E and a successful navigation equipment test we headed back to the 10°E line heading for lower altitudes to look for methane emissions above leads (wide cracks) in the Arctic sea ice pack. Our descents to 100 ft were very intermittent due to low cloud cover, but lead development was seen near 81.5°N, and these became more frequent as we flew south. The edge of the ice pack was close to 80.1°N and fragments of ice from the pack were observed to 79.9°N. Methane seemed to increase very slightly after reaching open water but changes were not much above instrument measurement precision.

Ice break-up 81°N (Photo: Dave Lowry)

Ice break-up 81°N (Photo: Dave Lowry)

Melting Ice

Melting ice rafts at 80.5°N (Photo: Dave Lowry)

Edge of sea ice at 80.1°N.(Photo: Dave Lowry)

Edge of sea ice at 80.1°N.(Photo: Dave Lowry)

After debrief we headed to the centre of Longyearbyen. The taxi drivers have plenty of great stories about the town, some not appropriate for print. We stayed in the Radisson hotel, which apparently was transported from Lillehammer after the 1994 winter Olympics. The cloud cover made the town quite gloomy, not helped by the remnants and scars of coal mining on the hillsides, although residential developments do add some colour.

MAGIC leader, John Pyle,  a long way from home.

MAGIC leader, John Pyle, a long way from home.

Midnight cloud and fjord at east edge of Longyearbyen (Photo: Dave Lowry)

Midnight cloud and fjord at east edge of Longyearbyen (Photo: Dave Lowry)

Longyearbyen residents invited to contribute to biomethane project? Only joking. (Photo: Dave Lowry)

Longyearbyen residents invited to contribute to biomethane project? Only joking. (Photo: Dave Lowry)

The first sortie for Wednesday was a 0900 UTC departure aimed at surveying the hydrate bubble line west of Prins Karls Forland where the water depth is approximately 400 m. This has been the focus of extensive acoustic and geophysical study by European groups over the past decade. Many methane bubble plumes have been observed rising from the sea bed, but these tend to dissolve or be oxidized as they rise in the water column and their breaching of the surface is still hotly debated, hence our current atmospheric surveys. The data from the profiles across this zone will now be analysed to see if there is elevated methane, although first impressions are that this is not a very big source in the context of global methane emissions. Frequent sightings of whales and seals were reported back from the flight deck, but from my seat under the wing these went mostly unobserved. A low level (1000 ft) return to Lonyearbyen allowed some great views of the coastal scenery including mountains, glaciers and wetlands.

Southern tip of Prins Karls Forland (Photo: Dave Lowry)

Southern tip of Prins Karls Forland (Photo: Dave Lowry)

Thawing Svalbard wetland (Photo: Dave Lowry)

Thawing Svalbard wetland (Photo: Dave Lowry)

Another hour was spent over the bubble zone after lunch and refuel before climbing to 25,000 ft for the return transit to Kiruna. Spectacular views of the Norwegian coast were a distraction from watching the methane displays until the start of the descent into Kiruna. A plume of long-range transport of emitted methane was observed and sampled between 20,000 and 18,000 ft, and the air mass history will be analysed to interpret the source of this. We landed in Kiruna at 1700 UTC. We had flown around 13 hours in the 2 days and I had collected close to 50 samples of air for subsequent analysis back at Royal Holloway, University of London. So lots of tired crew and scientists but a very rewarding and informative trip. Hope to see a little more of the midnight sun if I get another opportunity to go up there.

Dr Dave Lowry (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Tuesday 1 July

Sea ice north of Svalbard, where we were looking for evidence of methane release. (Photo: John Pyle)

Sea ice north of Svalbard, where we were looking for evidence of methane release. (Photo: John Pyle)

We made it to 84N and did some really good science en route. The second radar altimeter (without which extended flying below 100ft is impossible) was playing up on the ground in Kiruna so I was nervous that we would not be able to do any of the low level work that we’d planned. In the event, it righted itself en route and we were able to fly down to 50ft over the ocean off Svalbard, including flight round the Norwegian research vessel of our MOCA (one of the other projects working on this field campaign) colleagues.

The afternoon flight took us to 84N, a record for FAAM, with a low level return over ice, mixed ice and open ocean to Svalbard. We have got excellent methane data to investigate whether the ocean is a methane source at the edge of the sea ice. It was an exciting flight, if a little too much for Stéph (see photo).

Professor John Pyle, University of Cambridge

An exhausting day, getting up to 84N.

An exhausting day, getting up to 84N. (Photo: John Pyle)

Sun 29 June 2014

It’s 06:09am on a Sunday, and I am sitting on a train bound for London. I am glad that most people seem to be travellers who have slept and deliberately got up early for the train, and don’t look like they have been partying until dawn. I’m not sure I could handle such revelry at this previously unknown hour on a Sunday.

The only reason I am not only awake, but also out and about, is that I’m heading to Heathrow to begin my journey up to Kiruna in Northern Sweden for the final batch of field work for MAMM, which has been christened MAGIC because it’s a collaboration between several different projects (and presumably someone thought that MAGIC sounded pretty cool). Like in previous years, this is quite an epic journey. As my colleague Ines and I want to arrive reasonably early on Monday in Kiruna (so we can do the research flight in the afternoon), we are heading to Stockholm today, staying the night, and then getting an even earlier flight tomorrow to Kiruna. Luckily, we are staying over on a converted Jumbo Jet, which is pretty much at the airport. So I’ll get a lie in tomorrow.

The research flight tomorrow is to be a wetland survey. We have done these kinds of flights on previous years, so we want to repeat it to see if we get the same results this time. We are measuring methane over the wetlands, to see if different types of bogs, swamps, forests and fens give off different amounts of methane. We also want to see how the methane changes from season to season, and depending on the recent weather.

Two years ago we flew a few weeks later in July. This year will be the earliest we’ve been (the research aircraft arrives on 30 June), so you might expect it to be the coolest. I looked at the forecasts though, and it looks quite warm (possibly 15C where we’re going), so there’s a chance it’ll be warmer than some of the periods we’ve been before! I think northern Sweden is a little bit like the UK in that respect – you don’t know quite when the hottest part of the summer is going to be, and don’t be too surprised to get rain at any time!

Dr Michelle Cain, University of Cambridge

Flying over wetlands, lakes and forests last year.

Flying over wetlands, lakes and forests last year.

Stéphane and me next to the QCL (quantum cascade laser) instrument on board the Atmospheric Research Aircraft.

Stéphane and me next to the QCL (quantum cascade laser) instrument, which measures methane and nitrous oxide, on board the Atmospheric Research Aircraft. It really is a lab in the sky! Photo by Sue Nelson of Boffin Media.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email, asking if I could take part in recording a Planet Earth podcast, with one of my colleagues (Planet Earth is the Natural Environment Research Council’s magazine). Of course I immediately agreed, as the MAMM team love sharing their work with the world!

So, a few Mondays ago, I went over to Cranfield, where the Atmospheric Research Aircraft is based when it’s not on field campaigns, to meet with Stéphane Bauguitte, one of the MAMM team who runs the fast greenhouse gas analyser and is a flight manager (amongst other things), and Sue Nelson, who was interviewing us and recording the podcast.

It was lucky that the aircraft was not only in the hangar and not out flying, but the instruments we use to measure the methane in the air were still on board. Many other projects don’t need to measure the methane, so the engineers remove the unnecessary kit, and replace it with other instruments to measure different things in the atmosphere.

We had a great time showing Sue the aircraft — I think she was suitably impressed by its size! Listen to the podcast to find out just how noisy it is on board, and to find out about our exploits in the Arctic.


The aircraft at home in the hangar at Cranfield. Photo by Sue Nelson of Boffin Media.

The aircraft at home in the hangar at Cranfield. Photo by Sue Nelson of Boffin Media.

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

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