The Polar-5 aircraft surveyed a vast area of the Arctic to take measurements of pollutants and natural chemicals in the atmosphere. Photo: Tom McElroy © Environment Canada, 2009.
What better way to study the air than to be in it?
That’s just what the Pan-Arctic Measurements and Arctic Regional Climate Model Simulations (PAM-ARCMIP) project research team did earlier this year.
Scientists from Germany, Italy, Russia and Canada, including scientists from Environment Canada (EC), boarded a DC-3 aircraft called 'Polar-5'. The four-week expedition in the spring took the international research team half-way across the high Arctic, flying from Western Europe through Canada to the northern United States (Alaska).
The mission: to gather data on air quality, meteorology and sea ice thickness in the Arctic to better understand our changing polar environment – all from the air.
EC scientists led the air quality research. Their findings will be key to solving two important Arctic atmospheric mysteries: the disappearance of ground-level ozone and mercury from Arctic air, and the unknown impacts of soot on climate warming.
Disappearing act over the Arctic
In the late 1980s, EC scientists were the first to discover some unusual chemical reactions taking place in the Arctic atmosphere. During the early polar spring sunrise, they observed the mysterious disappearance of ground-level ozone (a potent greenhouse gas and smog pollutant)and mercury (a toxic chemical) from the air near the surface of the ice.
Since then, scientists have been concerned that the disappearing mercury and other air pollutants may be moving from the air into the snowpack and the Arctic Ocean. If this turns out to be true, these pollutants could enter the northern ecosystem and eventually affect the human population.
Scientists measured pollutants and natural chemicals in the atmosphere using the EC Sun Photo Spectrometer attached to the tail of the Polar-5 aircraft. The Sun Photo Spectrometer measures atmospheric chemicals as they absorb sunlight in different parts of the light spectrum.
While it is still too early to draw specific conclusions from the measurements taken during the expedition, one thing was apparent: researchers concluded that most of the time, no ground-level ozone existed in the Arctic atmosphere. Thanks to the vast landscape and altitude at which Polar-5 flew, researchers are now more certain that this disappearing act does in fact take place across the Arctic.
EC scientist Tom McElroy is seen with a Sun Photo Spectrometer, one of the instruments aboard the PAM-ARCMIP used to measure chemicals in the atmosphere. Photo: Peter Liu © Environment Canada, 2009.
The unknown extent and impact of atmospheric chemicals like black carbon (soot) over the frozen Arctic Ocean has been another gripping mystery for scientists. It has become an even more compelling case to solve as scientists recently discovered that black carbon particles play an important role in atmospheric warming and disappearing ice across the Arctic.
The research carried out by the
EC scientists used a Single Particle Soot Photometer, housed inside the Polar-5 aircraft cabin, to detect and measure black carbon during the
The Single Particle Soot Photometer collected air samples that were pumped into the plane as it flew across the Arctic. It then used laser power to heat up black carbon particles, strip off their coating, and heat each particle core to 3500ºC, ultimately making the particles glow. Within microseconds, the instrument detects and records the glowing soot particles.
The PAM-ARCMIP scientists participated in sea survival training in order to prepare for the science flights taking place over the Arctic Ocean. Photo © Alfred Wegener Institute, 2009.
Scientists are in the process of analyzing the large amount of data collected during the
The findings from this international expedition can help arm some of the brightest minds in science with the necessary tools to protect our precious polar regions and answer some critical questions about the future of our changing climate.
- Date Modified:
- The Pan-Arctic Measurements and Arctic Regional Climate Model Simulations (PAM-ARCMIP) research team collected their data while flying over the high Arctic
- Sixty metres was the lowest flight altitude of the Polar-5 aircraft during PAM-ARCMIP project
- Average air temperatures during the expedition were below -30ºC
- Researchers aboard the Polar-5 shared the aircraft with up to seven other people and 13 measurement instruments for the PAM-ARCMIP project