By Michelle Theriault Boots
11:56 AM AKDT, June 6, 2011
The Coast Guard C-130 airplane flies low over the fractured springtime Arctic ice pack offshore from the town of Barrow. At the tail end of May, the ice looks shattered: broken sheets dotted by turquoise pools and snaky paths leading to open water.
This air holds clues about climate-change-causing emissions that are reshaping the Arctic's sea ice as well as life on the ground below.
Since 2009, NOAA scientists have been measuring levels of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane in the Arctic, a bellwether region that could reveal truths about climate change worldwide. The data will help map out natural emissions sites, estimate the levels of gases they emit and set benchmarks for future changes.
Today, NOAA technician Jason Manthey, an affable bearded Kodiak native who also works part-time at a brewery, is in charge of taking the readings.
"It's baseline data," he says. "We have nothing to compare it to."
Holding his blue clipboard, he keeps an eye on a heat-expelling block of monitors, called a piccolo. A plane window replaced by a plate studded with air inlets transfers data from the frigid air outside through tubes that connect to the machine. Instruments record levels of ozone, carbon dioxide, methane and other trace gases and pollutants.
Air samples, in glass flasks, are sent to NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder,Colorado. What those samples reveal could have a big impact on scientists' understanding of the remote region.
On this flight, packed with media and other VIPs on their way to a search and rescue training exercise in Barrow, data will only be collected in one location. But on most of the data-collection flights, measurements are taken on a route that starts in Kodiak and snakes up the Western Arctic, stopping in places like Kivalina and Point Lay on the way to Barrow.
Arctic ice coverage in December 2010 was the lowest for any December since recordkeeping started in 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, according to a Reuters report.
The program is the result of a partnership between the Coast Guard and NOAA. The Coast Guard makes weekly or bi-weekly flights to the region as part of "Arctic Domain Awareness" exercises, aimed at getting people and planes into Arctic waters that they predict will be host to increased human and vessel traffic as the ice melts.
NOAA conducts similar monitoring at 60 sites worldwide.
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