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Question Your World: Why is NASA Studying Virginia's Atmosphere?

Virginians may see something interesting in the air through out the month of May. That’s because NASA has a special plane conducting a survey right here in our home-state. This of course raises the obvious question why is NASA studying Virginia’s atmosphere? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to learn more.

Scientists know the total amount of heat trapping gases going into our atmosphere every single year. These gases are produced as a result of burning fossil fuels. About half of these heat trapping gases stay in the atmosphere and go on to do what they do best, trap heat. The rest of them are cycled through by the oceans and vegetation here on on Earth. This, however, does not give us the most accurate information on how heat trapping gases are being distributed through bodies of water and vegetation. In order for us to better understand this process and to make policy decisions we’ll need a more detailed understanding of the relationship between the atmosphere and our ecosystems.

To truly understand how these gases are distributed we would need to study swamps, farmlands, various bodies or water, grasslands, and forests. Well, as every proud Virginian knows, we got all that right here in our back yard. Virginia also happens to be home to an official NASA facility, located on Wallops Island. Since so many items needed for this survey can be found right here, Virginia has become the place to be to study the distribution of heat trapping gases.

As of now scientists have been using satellite technology and ground based measurement stations to collect this information. Observations from space and from right here on the ground are helpful, but leave a substantial distance unstudied, the distance between the ground and space. To get a better and more accurate understanding here we'll need to get a plane involved. This is why NASA’s C23 Sherpa aircraft will be a part of the Carbon Airborne Flux Experiment. Getting data from this vantage point will allow scientists to better understand the exchange process between our ecosystems and the atmosphere.

This study will allow scientists to look at how specific landscapes like forests and swamps play a role in processing heat trapping gases. For this study they will fly the plane from the Pocomoke Forest down to the Great Dismal Swamp area. To get very accurate results this plane will even fly as low as 500 feet off the ground for a portion of its flight. Collecting this information will provide us with a more complete knowledge on which ecosystems create which different impacts to their local atmosphere. This data can then go on to help shape policy regarding these various ecosystems moving forward. Once we know for a fact that a certain swamp or grassland is a vital player needed in distributing heat trapping gases, the better we'll be able to shape policy and protect that natural resource.

This is a pilot program for two great reasons. First of all, a more fine tuned regional understanding of how heat trapping gases move through various ecosystems and bodies of water would further enhance our knowledge about this area. This test could be done globally to get the most accurate understanding of our planet’s various ecosystems and how they ultimately interact with our atmosphere. Virginia is just a test, but this could go on to much bigger and widespread versions to help us learn more, shape future policy, and continue to learn more about the natural world around us. All great reasons for this to be a pilot program. Secondly, this program requires a pilot to fly the plane. Yet another great reason to call this a pilot program. Stay tuned as more details develop on this story!