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NOAA, Boeing team up to test greenhouse gas-measuring technology
Theo Stein
/ Categories: Research Headlines, Climate

NOAA, Boeing team up to test greenhouse gas-measuring technology

NOAA and Boeing are teaming up to evaluate the best placement for a NOAA greenhouse gas sampling system on a commercial jet by testing options on a new Boeing 737 as part of Boeing’s 2021 ecoDemonstrator flying test bed program. This is a first step toward an expansion of NOAA’s global atmospheric sampling network to include commercial airliners in the U.S. and International airlines in these critical data-gathering efforts. 

In the coming weeks, scientists with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory will oversee installation of three different air sampling inlet configurations on an Alaska Airlines 737-9, one of about 20 different technologies to be included in Boeing’s annual ecoDemonstrator program. 

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NOAA's Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network measures gas concentrations air samples from more than 50 ground based sampling locations around the world. NOAA also contracts with a small number of civilian pilots to collect airborne samples. Credit: NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory

During test flights this summer and fall, NOAA scientists will be focused on identifying the best way to sample air outside the commercial airplane to minimize contamination. Air for greenhouse gas measurements will be collected from a duct that feeds outside air into the airplane’s interior, and from two inlets mounted in a window plug for comparison.  

Goal: standardizing inlet location

“The ecoDemonstrator program provides NOAA an unparalleled opportunity to test our greenhouse gas sampling system on a civilian airliner,” said Colm Sweeney, lead scientist for the NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory’s aircraft measurements program. “Standardizing the location and installation of greenhouse gas monitoring instruments on commercial aircraft will be an important first step in expanding our sampling network to provide data for scientists and policymakers interested in understanding greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.” 

For the past 10 years, Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator program has taken nearly 200 promising technologies out of the lab and tested them in the air to address challenges for the aviation industry and improve the passenger experience. Each year, the company selects a different aircraft for ecoDemonstrator flight testing by partnering with an airline or using a Boeing-owned aircraft. The NOAA project is one of several technologies being flight-tested this year that are related to environmental sustainability. 

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Hiring private contractors to sample greenhouse gases from the air is an important aspect of NOAA's climate research. Here, Paolo Wilczak pilots a sampling flight over southeastern Connecticut on April 25, 2020, as part of the East Coast Outflow field mission. The Global Monitoring Laboratory hopes to add civilian airliners to its sampling fleet. Credit: Paolo Wilczak, Scientific Aviation

The NOAA Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network measures the atmospheric distribution and trends of the three main, long-term drivers of climate change - carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide - along with carbon monoxide, an indicator of air pollution. The network collects samples from four baseline atmospheric observatories, as well as from 50 partner institutions and trained volunteers around the world. Since 1992, NOAA has contracted with a handful of private pilots who have collected air samples at a range of altitudes and locations across North America.  

Data collected by aircraft provide a view of how the large-scale horizontal and vertical distribution of the measured gases change throughout a given year over the continent. This allows scientists to estimate the contribution of both natural and manmade emissions from the North America continent to the global atmosphere. 

Added measurements would improve climate models

While NOAA’s current network of 14 U.S. land-based sites provide valuable scientific data for estimates made by models and satellites, scientists need to increase the number and location of samples to directly measure changes in natural and human-made emissions, and the effectiveness of policies designed to reduce climate change impacts. 

NOAA's ultimate goal is to install greenhouse gas measurement equipment on in-service aircraft to enhance its existing long-term greenhouse gas dataset, which informs policymakers and climate researchers around the world. U.S. commercial aircraft routinely collect weather observations, particularly vertical profiles of temperature and relative humidity captured on takeoff and landing, which have become increasingly important to improving short-term numerical weather models that forecasters rely on to predict severe weather. 

“Greenhouse gas measurements made from U.S. commercial airliners would help scientists verify the effectiveness of mitigation efforts in urban areas near major metropolitan airports, and changes in natural emissions coming from melting permafrost near remote airports in the high Arctic,” said Kathryn McKain, the lead scientist for NOAA’s Commercial Aircraft Sampling Network.  

To learn more about the ecoDemonstrator program, visit: http://www.boeing.com/principles/environment/ecodemonstrator

For more information about the Global Monitoring Laboratory's aircraft sampling program, contact Theo Stein, NOAA Communications, at theo.stein@noaa.gov. 

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