When our lands or seas aren’t healthy, we can usually tell because of clues we can see, like wilted plants and pale reefs. But how do we diagnose our ailing air? To figure out how to stymie Earth’s fever, NASA has set out to take biopsies of what’s causing it.
The expedition, ACT-America (short for Atmospheric Carbon and Transport), wants to pin down the culprits that release the most gas, a NASA blog announced last week.
Last month, scientists embarked on special flights to collect samples of greenhouse gases — specifically, carbon dioxide and methane — which trap heat in the atmosphere. June marked the 14th consecutive month that broke monthly global temperature records, which is the longest streak in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s 137 years of record-keeping.
ACT-America team members discuss final preparations before the start of the Mid-Atlantic portion of the month-long flight campaign. Credit: NASA
Each plane for the five-year study is fitted with flasks that traps air and gas with a push of a button, which are placed in special areas so they don’t scoop up any of the planes’ exhaust. When they’re filled to the brim, the instrument bids them good cheer with a “Have a nice day,” and the samples are sent to Colorado State University for dissection.
Carbon dioxide makes up most of the emissions pie, according to estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency (ESA). Methane accounts for about 11 percent. Livestock like cattle and sheep have long been known to contribute to methane emissions. The other suspects: plants, air conditioning units, fossil fuels, and electrical transformers.
Two B200 mission support aircraft in flight over California’s Mojave Desert. Credit: NASA
The five-year study will fly campaigns during every season, crisscrossing over rural and urban areas of the eastern United States. Two of the bigger planes can stay in the air for an entire work day as they follow lawnmower-like patterns through the sky for full coverage.
Researchers chose areas east of the Rockies because their topography provides an ideal environment for how carbon travels over deep woods and buzzing cities.
Once the experiment breaks down what chemical compounds are instigating the greenhouse effect, then they’ll know what’s making Earth so flushed and sweaty. And that, in turn, can help dictate policy to curb the right emissions.
If you’re curious what your own carbon effect is, the ESA has a footprint calculator to crunch the numbers.