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Ed Dumas
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Ed Dumas

Flying research drones and aircraft to collect data on climate change and extreme weather

by Sarah Fesenmyer (NOAA Research Communications)

“When I first went up to the North Slope of Alaska in 1993,”  says Ed Dumas, NOAA computer programmer and former research pilot, “I walked right out onto the Arctic Ocean on sea ice on the summer solstice.” He returned in 1998 to collect data on carbon dioxide fluxes in the lower atmosphere, and on the same day in June the sea ice was too far off to see. On his most recent trip, in June 2013, Dumas and his colleagues sent a small research plane out from the coast near Barrow, Alaska, to find the edge of the sea ice, but the aircraft returned after two hours never having reached it.

Ed Dumas

Ed Dumas

Computer programmer with NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory, with his recreation sailplane [Credit: Maria Crenshaw]

Seeing this consequence of global warming with his own eyes has been a powerful experience for Dumas. It reinforced the importance of his decades-long work with NOAA using aircraft to precisely measure conditions in the lower atmosphere, improving our ability to predict and understand climate change and extreme weather patterns.

Dumas works for the Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division of NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory (ARL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where he designs data sensors and data acquisition software for manned and unmanned research aircraft. He has also been a research pilot for the laboratory, logging 900 hours flying NOAA’s Long-EZ plane to measure carbon gas fluxes between air and land surfaces over North America.

View of Alaskan tundra from NOAA’s Long-EZ plane

View of Alaskan tundra from NOAA’s Long-EZ plane

[Credit: Dumas]

One of Dumas’s major accomplishments with NOAA was helping develop the BAT probe (Best Aircraft Turbulence) with his ARL colleagues.The probe is mounted on a long pole jutting out from a plane’s nose, where it measures the chaotic, three-dimensional flow of winds and gases. Working with Airborne Research Australia, the ARL team initially developed this low-cost wind sensor for NOAA research projects in the lower atmosphere. They made the instrument adaptable to nearly any aircraft, however, and BAT probes are now used all over the world for studying weather and climate.

In the Arctic, Dumas and his ARL colleagues used the BAT probe to measure the land-air exchange of carbon dioxide and methane gases. As ice melts in the High Arctic region, where air temperatures are increasing twice as fast as in other parts of the world, the tundra may be releasing stored carbon gases into the atmosphere. “The BAT probe is able to count the number of particles that go up and go down, telling us how much gas is going down to the earth’s surface and how much is coming back up,” explains Dumas. These measurements from this largely inaccessible region add to our understanding of highly complex Arctic climate processes and feedbacks.

BAT probe

BAT probe

The data sensor is located on a pole, extending from the nose of a research aircraft [Credit: Dumas]

Over the last three years, Dumas has been supporting ARL’s study of the lower atmosphere with much smaller aircraft﹘three-foot long science drones. NOAA is quickly expanding the use of unmanned aircraft, operated by remote pilots, to inexpensively gather environmental data. Dumas has been flying radio-controlled gliders since he was ten, so he has embraced this move towards unmanned aircraft. On weekends, he competes with other hobbyists in open fields in the Southern Appalachians, directing a glider to rise on a thermal column, circle to gain altitude, and then land within a few feet of where he launched it. ARL now plans to acquire an electric-powered aircraft patterned after the sailplanes Dumas competes with, except NOAA’s glider will carry several pounds of scientific equipment to measure atmospheric properties. 

The octocopter

The octocopter

ARL’s science drone [Credit: Bob Sulfridge]

The new unmanned aircraft will complement the capabilities of the first science drone which Dumas has used for ARL research: the octocopter. With the octocopter, the ARL team is able to record detailed vertical profiles of temperature, relative humidity, and air pressure. Gathered on summer days before a thunderstorm develops, this data is helping ARL identify signatures associated with the onset of severe weather, ultimately improving weather forecasts. Dumas is using the octocopter this spring in the NOAA VORTEX-SE research project, acquiring similar data to improve tornado forecasts.

“Without a doubt small unmanned aircraft will become more and more important for weather and climate measurements,” says Dumas. He is excited to participate in NOAA’s goal of transitioning from the experimental use of unmanned aircraft to routine operations and data collection. And he hopes to see a smaller version of the BAT probe installed on a science drone in the near future.

Dumas believes that ARL’s work to understand complex atmospheric processes is vital, particularly in light of the changing global climate and the environmental shifts he has observed over his own career.

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