NASA’s world tour of atmosphere reveals some surprises

Measuring the gases and pollutants that cycle through the air and around the globe.


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71% of the Earth is covered by water, and two-thirds of Earth’s atmosphere resides over the oceans. In order to quantify the gases and pollutants that cycle through the air and around the globe, satellites in space measuring the major gases can close some of that gap.

In order to search for the exact chemistry that happens in the air or oceans, NASA scientists in 2016 announced a mission named Atmospheric Tomography (ATom).

During the mission, scientists with 25 propelled instruments onboard NASA’s DC-8 inquired about the airship had inspected more than 400 distinct gases and a wide scope of airborne particles on month-long outings from Alaska down the Pacific to New Zealand, at that point over to South America and up the Atlantic to Greenland, and over the Arctic Ocean.

A long way from arriving, the air over the sea is the place to discover the cleanest air on the planet — from a certain point of view. Throughout three organizations, and with their fourth and last trek starting in late April, the group has discovered shocking levels of poisons over the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans.

DC-8 flying that pattern to capture atmospheric samples through the entire column of air
Credits: NASA/Mersmann

Scientists used computer models to recreate the development of the real gases; for example, carbon monoxide, made by inadequate burning from flames, is one of the devices utilized by the ATom group to get a thought of what they may see on every leg of their flight. It’s additionally one of the instruments they are accessing.

ATom’s principal investigator, Steve Wofsy of Harvard University, said, “Recalling the flight up the center of the Atlantic and the stop at Ascension Island halfway between Africa and South America, it is astounding to see such dense pollution in the middle of the ocean, so far from the source regions.”

Researcher photographing the sea ice as the DC-8 flies over the Arctic January 2017. Credits: NASA/ Sam Hall
Researcher photographing the sea ice as the DC-8 flies over the Arctic January 2017.
Credits: NASA/ Sam Hall

“As we descended the first time, we were stunned to find ourselves in a thick haze of smoke and dust that originated in Africa, thousands of kilometers to the east. The haze had an unappealing yellow-brown hue and was so thick we couldn’t see the ocean. All of the hundreds of pollutant chemicals we measured had very high amounts. On each revisit since that first one, we have found a similar pall extending for thousands of kilometers, spanning the entire tropical Atlantic Ocean.”

Paul Newman, chief scientist of Earth science at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said, “One of the great things about ATom is showing how well the model generally works. The model combines weather forecasts with known atmospheric chemistry to tell them where and when a pollution plume will intersect the flight path.”

“But it misses a lot of the detail. It gives you an understanding of where the stuff is coming from, and that allows you to refine your science. So we’re not out there discovering uncharted lands, but it’s like, I have a map of Iowa, and I’ll drive around there, and that map is probably, depending on how old it is, 95 percent right. It’s the 5 percent wrong that’s interesting.”

During the examination, tracking plumes was the first process for a better understanding of how they change as they linger over the ocean. For instance, the hydrocarbons from smoke crest respond in daylight with different gases to frame ozone, an ozone-harming substance and air poison best known as the primary fixing in city brown haze.

The instruments on board the DC-8 can identify both ozone itself and every one of the gases that create ozone by substance responses. This implies notwithstanding the following ozone in crest from arriving, the ATom group can likewise decide what amount is created from different gases over the sea.

Scientists primarily observed the Pacific Ocean as it is much farther from land than the Atlantic. They found the Lew ozone levels but production of new ozone over the ocean based on the measured suite of ingredient gases was higher than the models predicted.

ATom’s deputy project scientist Michael Prather at the University of California, Irvine said, “This implies that the remote Pacific is a larger source of tropospheric ozone than we previously understood. It’s a preliminary result, and we have yet to analyze whether this produced ozone is natural or related to pollution, but it does mean we’ll need to rethink what we believe about how much ozone is produced over the remote oceans, and what that means for the climate and our efforts to reduce ozone pollution on land.”

Along with the atmospheric data collected, ATom’s final deployment will take place this spring.

To learn more about the ATom mission, visit:


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