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Putting Together the Arctic Puzzle
Nicola Blake Photograph of Nicola Blake. Credit: NASA
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The Arctic is arguably one of the most perplexing places on Earth – so puzzling that an entire campaign has been dedicated to learning more about it. Nicola Blake, an associate researcher from the University of California, Irvine, is working on NASA's Arctic Research of the Composition of the Troposphere from Aircraft and Satellites (ARCTAS) campaign and tracking one trace gas at a time to uncover the mysteries of the Arctic atmosphere.

From Fairbanks, Alaska, Blake boards the NASA DC-8 plane and prepares her equipment for a flight to the Arctic Circle. Blake's responsibility on this campaign is centered on detecting gases that are present in the cold Arctic air. Using a special pump and more than 160 stainless steel canisters, Blake is able to take samples of the outside air every three to four minutes.

After the flight, these canisters are shipped back to the University of California, Irvine, for chemical analysis, using a process known as gas chromatography. This analysis can detect about 50 different trace chemicals in each sample, including hydrocarbons from car exhaust, wildfires, and oil and gas extractions.

Within the range of gases that Blake measures, she is able to pinpoint even the smallest concentrations of gases to see whether the air mass it came from was clean or polluted. If polluted, she can narrow down which activities, such as industrial pollution or wildfires, contributed to that pollution.

Blake is also responsible for looking at the data that have been measured with the instrument in the context of results from other flights. According to Blake, being part of both the collection and analysis phase for these campaigns is advantageous.

"Being physically present on a campaign and flying in the aircraft is a huge asset with respect to appreciating what went on during the campaign and helps enormously when it comes to interpreting and reporting our findings."

Interpreting and reporting findings are not new to Blake, because ARCTAS is not her first Arctic adventure. She has been taking part in campaigns since she was a graduate student in England.

During one such campaign, Blake flew over the Atlantic to the north of Ireland in a twin propeller Jetstream once per month to study air that came from the Arctic. She was also part of a collaborative team based at a research camp at the summit of the Greenland ice sheet.

"We all slept in tents pitched on the ice. By comparison, the facilities at the Sophie Station hotel in Fairbanks are luxurious indeed!"

Using knowledge from similar campaigns helps to understand and improve experiments. All the measurements and analyses that Blake has taken over the years serve as "parts of the puzzle" that have contributed to an evolving understanding of the effects that humans have on the atmosphere.

The Arctic is a special place to study these effects. "It's a fascinating part of the planet from a scientific point of view," says Blake. "I am excited about contributing information as part of the larger effort to better understand Arctic climate change."

Jennifer Collings
NASA's Langley Research Center