Notes from the Field


June 14th, 2010 by M. Ottaviani

As previously stated, it is Cool like in Cool, CA.

Our first science meeting took place midway between T0 (McClellan Air Force Base) and T1 (Cool), so I couldn’t get a better chance to drive to the site that marks our downwind sampling location (T1, that is).

Off Rt. 80, you’ve got to follow the bends of 49 and down the gorge past Auburn, a real pretty town draped around the turns of historic Rt. 40. Then you drive up for another 4 miles past the Cool quarry.

Amidst this rural, very rural area, lies Northside Elementary school. Classes have been over for a week now, yet the backyard still hosts activity spurred by eternal kids with grey hair.

[youtube EX5qIuVhGWs 468]
This very repetitive bird emanates sound waves and the wind and
temperature in the atmosphere above are derived from their influence
on the speed of sound.

In trailers parked as control stations for ground instrumentation they are monitoring every spike in incoming particulates. Everything is very peaceful…trees, Sun, and even digital birds chirping.

Rushing back to the meeting, I found a room plenty with people anxious to display their first week of data. It is very important in the beginning of a campaign to make sure we establish a consistent baseline among all the different instruments.

Big discussions have already been engaged as to what pertains to local events as opposed to consistent transport patterns, but some points confirm the expectations. On a daily basis, a wide variety of small particles including black carbon get transported until they’re detected miles downwind from the sources, growing in size and getting coated with sulfates and other organics. More mysteries are hidden behind the unexpected amount of ultrafine particles, less than 10 nanometers in size (1 nanometer is a billionth of a meter). We’re not sure where they come from but they’re all around the urban areas.


Why Sacramento?

June 7th, 2010 by M. Ottaviani

There’s nothing special about Sacramento’s urban emissions per se, other than being very typical emissions from a city. So why was the campaign designed to take place here? The thing is that this region has a very well defined circulation pattern, which makes the plume transport very regular.

Southwesterly winds mix two airflows in the afternoon. The first is a persistent flow originating in the San Francisco Bay area.  The second is more local and due to air being heated up in the Sierras, which draws the cooler air from the valley. Unless — there is always an unless — the flow gets disrupted by synoptic (read: large scale) storms born in the Pacific. This is apparently what we have been observing in the first days of the campaign, doomed by an unusual amount of mid-level clouds. NASA’s instruments usually fly at around 8-9 km, and these clouds partly spoil our ability to observe aerosols beneath.

In any case, under normal conditions the resulting upslope flow transports the Sacramento’s plume towards the mountains, where anthropogenic aerosols interact with the biogenic sources from the forested areas, which are loaded with terpenes produced by the photosynthetic activity of vegetation. Recent research has shown that these biogenic sources could give an extra kick to the production of secondary organic aerosols of anthropogenic origin. “Secondary” here designates a zoo of different compounds generated by the interactions of “primary” substances with background conditions, leading to a myriad of chemical and physical transformations. An example? Humidity can coat aerosols of a thin film of water, drastically changing their properties.

Typical transport (airflow) conditions in the Sacramento area.

The overall goal of the mission is to follow the evolution of the plume, sampling the formation of secondary organics and the anthropogenic/biogenic mixing ratio. Of great avail is the Cool “T1” site downwind from the sources here in Sacramento, packed with instrumentation on the ground managed by the Department of Energy. It’s Cool, like in Cool, CA. This nearly uninhabited site will be regularly overflown by the airplanes involved in the campaign so that data from the different platforms can be compared and validated. You can’t have ground sites everywhere, so that’s why the DOE G-1 airplane samples the area in between, trying to fill the gap and find out what happens in between. Plus there is us – the NASA group. We observe the same aerosols from high above, so we provide scene context. Our instruments are prototypes of those that fly on satellites in space, which are so very important because they give continuous global coverage via the “remote sensing” technique, or “the art of collecting data form a distance”. Very politically correct.

I have to thank Jerome Fast, who has extensive experience as chief meteorologist in campaigns like CARES, for his punctual forecast in the daily briefings and the explanations that prompted this post.


There’s always a lot of people thanking each other in a campaign, but today the crew, the pilots, and whoever up there is responsible for good weather deserves all my kudos. I normally don’t get to sit on the airplane, as our instrument works as a Swiss clock and we prefer to save fuel to pull longer flight legs. Today the circumstances were atypical and I got to board, curiously on the day of the one-year anniversary form my previous flight, during the RACORO campaign in Oklahoma.

Touristic companies would have a hard time to match the quality of this Tour of California (and I didn’t have to pay for it). I have to share these pictures, although their quality doesn’t speak enough of the true beauty of the sight. In my partial defense, I must say that the small B200 is extremely crammed and taking a good shot requires leaning over the pilots, which is not something you want to do too often (all other windows are partially darkened).

Taxing on the SMF runway, ready for takeoff. The preamble to a fab flight.

The route led us South of Sacramento along the San Joaquin valley, majestically shouldered by the Sierras still loaded with late spring snow.

Fresno marked our big right turn toward the coast, right about when we spotted a small fire in the San Benito region.

The flight plan required overpassing some ground stations at NASA Ames and in Monterey, so we were absolutely forced to come back along the Big Sur. Absolutely. It truly is a glorious coastline with surf clearly visible even from a 9km altitude. Cloud banks were innocuously looming from the ocean, a single tongue of fog daring to come further right there where it should be.

The final stretch was over the valleys of Napa and Sonoma, and shortly before touchdown over the only cloud bank the plane had to overfly.

I finally want to mention that yesterday was also “media” day. Here and here is what came out of it. By the way, if you happen to watch the videos, you should note that even if Rahul investigates scientific principles, that doesn’t make him a “principle investigator” as the banner reports. He’s the “principal investigator”. Don’t mean to brag too much about it, it’s just a matter of principle. Since we’re at it, measuring the composition of particles requires a “spectrometer” rather than an “aspectrometer”. Well, in a way we’re measuring the aspect of particles.


We are not alone

June 3rd, 2010 by M. Ottaviani

First day on the field. I made it to McClellan airfield (with luggage lost of course). Off-course! So many things to do, trying to get my bearings and making sure I know who is who.

Guess what? I have a fellow blogger! Rahul Zaveri, the principal investigator of the mission, is posting regular updates on the Pacific Northwestern National Laboratory website.

We must mention here that CARES is actually happening simultaneously to CalNex, a big effort involving the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the California Energy Commission (CEC).

Several aircraft and vessels at sea have been deployed since May over California and the Eastern Pacific coastal region, collecting data to study the relation between air quality and climate change. Lots of folks have been working around the clock during the last month. That part of the campaign staged Ontario, CA as a base camp and lots of aerosols were detected and monitored in Southern California.

On another note, I checked out the Biennial at the Whitney Museum in New York City’s Upper East Side last weekend. Huge noise on the second floor, and I followed it. It led me to Ari Marcopoulos‘ installation, a simple home-made video called “Detroit”. It carefully portrayed two kids creating all sort of bzzzzzz–waa-waa-ffoossshhhhh-skrrreeeeek sounds by gently whacking old transistor amps and skillfully acting on the knobs of guitar distortion pedals.

I’ll let you guess until a later post why bzzzzzz–waa-waa-ffoossshhhhh-skrrreeeeek reminded me of CARES. I can just see you sizzling with trepidation already….

Matteo Ottaviani, NASA GISS