Photo diary from flights around the Arctic

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Here are a few snaps from the MAMM field campaign (July 2012). We went flying on the FAAM research aircraft, kitted out to measure many gases, aerosols, and other meteorological parameters. The main aim was to search out Arctic sources … Continue reading

Svalbard: no bubbles or bears detected

Svalbard airport. No bears (armoured or otherwise) in sight.

The only things that anyone* ever wants to know about Svalbard are: did you see armoured bears, and did you see any methane bubbling up form the clathrates? Well, I’m sad to report that on first look, we detected neither.

*OK, so maybe not anyone. Maybe just me. Most people probably have no idea what I’m on about. So for the 99%, I’ll explain. Armoured bears are in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (highly recommended reading, IMHO). I won’t expand on that point. What I will expand upon is the bubbles, as we flew to Svalbard yesterday to see if we could find any evidence of them.

The bubbles of methane are released from structures on the bottom of the ocean, which are called methane clathrates, gas hydrates, or some variation thereof. I think these are very curious entities, probably because I don’t know enough about them. For now, I’ll just say that the gas hydrates are crystalline structures of water and methane ice, and methane is trapped within the structures. Sometimes, the methane can escape the structure, and bubble out into the ocean. There is a line of these gas hydrates just off the west coast of Svalbard, and methane has been observed bubbling up from the structures underwater. The methane dissolves in the water while it rises to the surface, but the question is whether all of it dissolves, or if some gas can escape to the air.

It was this source of methane that we went looking for off the coast of Svalbard. We didn’t observe higher concentrations of methane in the air while we were there, however it’s still possible we could detect some signature when we get the final analysis done in the lab (and by we, I mean colleagues at Royal Holloway, Manchester, FAAM, etc, and not me!).

Even if we don’t see any emissions from the gas hydrates, it doesn’t mean that it never reaches the atmosphere. The gas hydrates only trap the methane effectively at certain temperatures and pressures. If the water warms, the gas hydrates could potentially release considerable amounts of methane. If the sea is warming gradually, we may reach a point where lots of methane starts to be released. So it’s possible that under most conditions, no methane escapes. But then once the temperature crosses some threshold, it could then start to be released. What we want to know is whether any of this can get into the atmosphere, where it would cause more localised warming.

So that’s why we went off to Svalbard in summer. We also looked for, and found, regions of the atmosphere with more methane than the general background. This is one thing that I’m really interested in. I want to use a model to work out where these high concentrations of methane come from, and see if that’s consistent with the sources suggested by the isotopic analysis. Judging by the meteorology, I think the sources will be Russian (gas) or Scandinavian (wetlands). Watch this space (for a very long time) to find out if I’m right!

Arctic methane, here we come!

A quick snap of Stockholm, Sweden, today. Lucky it’s not possible to get to Kiruna from London in a single day, eh?

Today, I’m setting off for Sweden, to take part in field work for a project about Arctic methane (MAMM – methane in the Arctic, measurements and modelling). The research aircraft is going to be based in Kiruna, Sweden, and will be arriving there tomorrow. We’ve got a stop over in Stockholm to get there on a commercial flight, as we can’t do the journey in one day. It really is quite far north – the northernmost town in Sweden, where I don’t think it even gets dark at this time of year!

The aim of the project is to find out more about the methane (CH4) emissions in the Arctic, which are not very well known. Not only are the measurements in the Arctic quite sparse, as it’s rather remote, but the emissions are also very variable. One large source is wetlands, where bacteria produce methane (I’m no biologist, but wikipedia has an entry on wetland methane emissions). As the temperature increases, more methane is emitted. There are widespread wetlands in Scandinavia, and we have colleagues taking measurements there at the moment. Hopefully we will be able to fly over them and take more measurements, so we will be able to observe methane on the local scale, and the larger scale by the aircraft. Another source of methane is from “thermokarst lakes”. These are lakes that are frozen in winter and melt in the spring/summer, which releases methane.

One possible outcome of any Arctic warming is that there could be a positive feedback. This is because methane is a strong greenhouse gas (it is many times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, which I could go into in another post). Local emissions of methane will cause a local warming. As increased temperatures lead to more melting, and more release of methane, you can see how this could continue on and on! There is also a hypothesis that increases temperatures in the Arctic could be contributing to the bizarrely south-of-the-UK jet stream that we currently have, which has brought us immense amounts of rain. More on that on the Met Office blog.

So, what will I be doing for my field work, seeing as I usually live in the model world? Well, so far this week, I’ve been part of the group who are flight planning. We’ve been keeping a close eye on the forecasts for the European Arctic region, to try and plan the most suitable places to fly each day. We’re only flying Friday through to Monday, so we don’t have much room for manoeuvre, as it were. We want to link up some of the wetlands aircraft measurements with satellite measurements, but the satellite can only measure when there’s no cloud. Unfortunately, it’s looking like it might be cloudy at various times over the weekend.

We also want to go north to Svalbard. Hopefully we won’t see polar bears. What we do want to see is some methane coming out form the ocean. There is an undersea ridge, where methane trapped inside clathrates is released. There is definitely methane coming out form the vents (see a paper by Fisher et al, which I’ll have to find the link for later), but the question is whether it all dissolves in the water, or is some escapes to the atmosphere.  We shall hopefully find out more over the weekend!

So, that’s just a quick brain dump of what’s going on in my head just at the moment, while I’m on the train to London. Hopefully I’ll have time for more brain dumps over the weekend!