Archives for posts with tag: Svalbard

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)

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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)

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.