The UK’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) has funded the installation of special sensors on a new Air Canada A330-300 aircraft, as part of a European effort to collect real-time observations of the atmosphere by transforming commercial aircraft into flying laboratories.
The observations will be used by more than 300 organizations and will provide real-world observations of the atmosphere that feed into computer models of the climate. The data will also help validate air pollution forecast models at airports as part of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast (ECMWF) Atmosphere Monitoring Service.
The transformation of commercial aircraft is facilitated by the In-service Aircraft for a Global Observing System (IAGOS) program, which combines the expertise of scientific institutions, such as NCAS, with the infrastructure of civil aviation to provide essential data on climate change and air quality at a global scale.
In total, there have been more than 62,000 flights – around 550 per aircraft per year – made as part of the program, with the measurements complementing existing ground-based and satellite techniques.
Earlier this year, airline operator Lufthansa equipped a third aircraft – a Eurowings Discover Airbus A330 – with sensors designed to collect essential atmospheric climate measurements. It joins a small collection of specially adapted aircraft run by airliners including Air France, China Airlines and Iberia. Lufthansa has been flying long-haul aircraft with climate research instruments for more than seven years.
As part of the UK’s contribution to the IAGOS program, NCAS supports specialist instrumentation on board the commercial aircraft, drawing on expertise from the Atmospheric Measurement and Observation Facility.
Most recently, NCAS funded equipment on a new Air Canada A330-300 aircraft, due to start in February 2023. This aircraft will deliver observations from flights from London-Brussels-Dublin to Montreal-Toronto-Vancouver over the Arctic region.
There are also plans to expand the IAGOS fleet by providing more detailed observations over Europe, with Airbus providing technical input on plans to equip their cargo fleet, which includes six Beluga XL aircraft.
Dr Martin Gallagher from the University of Manchester leads the UK team and is a member of the IAGOS Executive Board. His team provides backscatter cloud probes for IAGOS, which detect clouds and large dust particles. “Working with partners across Europe, we provide a platform for analyzing cloud and dust particles through a laser measurement system, known as a backscatter cloud probe,” said Gallagher.
“The backscatter cloud probe helps to discover how cloud properties, such as droplet size and liquid water content, vary in different parts of our atmosphere, while also providing quality control of key IAGOS trace gas, water vapor and aerosol data for monitoring climate. The instrument also delivers a more extensive in-situ global database of cirrus ice clouds to assess aviation impacts on climate, and vice versa.”
IAGOS core instruments provide extensive global coverage of key observable metrics in the atmosphere, such as greenhouse gases and reactive trace gases including carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor and nitrogen oxides.
In addition, IAGOS now supports the IAGOS-CARIBIC aircraft platform, which has been operating for over 20 years, and which includes state of the art instruments to provide more complex observations of reactive trace gases.