Climate technology is about to fly commercially

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A technology for detecting greenhouse gases is about to go commercial. Greenhouse gas detectors will soon be flying on an Alaska Airlines-run Boeing 737-9, in an effort to help federal scientists gain even more information about how we are changing the climate. The tools would measure concentrations of planet-heating pollution in the air, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced today.

They call the plane, which will have no passengers, a “ecoDemonstrator.” It tests a number of constructs along with the greenhouse gas detector — including features that can make the aircraft more fuel efficient or less noisy.

During several test flights this year, NOAA will find the best place to install their devices — either mounted on a window or in a duct that feeds outside air into the plane — to keep away from the aircraft’s own exhaust. The goal is to bolster NOAA’s existing data collection efforts by eventually extending the equipment to some commercial aircraft operating domestic and international flights.

A handful of private jets are already collecting samples for NOAA. An entire fleet of commercial aircraft contributing to the effort could become a powerful tool for tracking where greenhouse gas emissions come from and how much they accumulate in the atmosphere. That knowledge could also help scientists and policymakers measure whether people are making progress in tackling climate change.

“We think we are making progress, but are we also making progress? Does the atmosphere actually change?” said Colm Sweeney, chief scientist for the NOAA Earth System Research Lab Aircraft Program. “Are we looking at the forest or are we looking at just one tree?”

Sweeney and his colleagues plan to focus on carbon dioxide and methane. From the ground up, researchers can get pretty good estimates of how much CO2 comes from burning fossil fuels for things like electricity, transportation, and industry. Ground-level data on methane emissions, on the other hand, is murkier because they mostly just leak out of the oil and gas infrastructure. There have been more attempts lately to measure these things by satellite as well. But planes can fly through the air where these greenhouse gases actually accumulate, making more accurate measurements.

“We actually measure where it counts,” Sweeney says.

By taking samples of the outside air during the plane’s journey, researchers may be able to triangulate the source of the pollutants they are measuring. Not only do they trace the emissions back to their source, but they also see how that pollution reproduces.

That’s also important to understand how changes in the natural world affect climate. Rising temperatures melt permafrost, releasing even more methane into the atmosphere, pushing temperatures higher in a dangerous feedback loop. NOAA hopes to better understand to what extent that happens.

Scientists are also concerned about the extent to which people can continue to rely on natural resources, such as oceans and forests, to reduce and store carbon dioxide emissions. NOAA’s measurements could provide some early warnings before these “carbon sinks” reach their limits.

Sweeney hopes NOAA’s test drives are successful. Thousands of commercial aircraft already take temperature readings that are used for weather forecasting. So maybe one day they can also take stock of the pollution that is giving the planet a fever in the first place.