With a wing and a grant, SBU researchers set to soar

Heavy lifting: The National Science Foundation's modified Hercules C-130 will fly as part of an environmental mission led by Stony Brook University researcher (and pilot) John Mak.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

High-flying Stony Brook University researchers will take to the skies to better understand atmospheric chemistry in two very different places.

Fueled by National Science Foundation grants totaling nearly $6 million, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences Dean Paul Shepson and Professor John Mak – both experienced pilots – will lead airborne studies involving scientists from across the land and a variety of sophisticated aircraft owned by the NSF, the University of Wyoming and Purdue University.

Their goal is singular: a better understanding of atmospheric composition, including pollutant levels. But their flightpaths will take the SoMAS researchers to drastically divergent airspaces, high above the Arctic and Metropolitan New York.

Sky lab: Purdue University’s ALAR aircraft.

Led by Shepson, the project “Collaborative Research: Chemistry in the Arctic-Clouds, Halogens and Aerosols” will study atmospheric chemistry in the Arctic and its effects on ozone, particulate matter and cloud chemical composition – important clues to the fate of the rapidly changing Arctic atmosphere, worthy of a four-year, $2.3 million NSF grant.

Aboard the University of Wyoming’s King Air research aircraft (a modified twin-engine Beechcraft 350i) and Purdue University’s Airborne Laboratory for Atmospheric Research (a modified Beechcraft Duchess Light Twin), Shepson – who’s remained tight with Purdue University since being named SoMAS dean in 2018 – will take airborne measurements of halogens and other gas-phase chemicals above the Alaska North Slope and the remote Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Paul Shepson: Arctic airman.

His team will actually be checking off a scientific first, according to the world-renowned atmospheric researcher, the former head of Purdue’s Department of Chemistry and founding director of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center.

“This will be the first time anyone has carried out extensive airborne measurements of halogen gases, particles and cloud droplets in the Arctic,” Shepson said. “The process and results from the measurements should represent a substantial step forward in our understanding of how the atmosphere cleans itself in polar regions.”

What the atmosphere does with itself above the Big Apple and its Outer Boroughs is the focus of “Collaborative Research: Greater New York Oxidant, Trace Gas, Halogen and Aerosol Airborne Mission,” which earned a four-year, $3.5 million NSF nod.

Mak, whose SoMAS laboratory is expert in the quantification and isotopic analysis of trace gases, will lead collaborators from SBU and six other universities aboard an NSF-owned Hercules C-130 cargo plane, a modified version of the four-engine turboprop that serves as the bulky backbone of U.S. military transportation.

John Mak: Herculean task.

For Mak’s missions, the plane will pack instruments designed specifically to evaluate atmospheric oxidants, measure biogenic and aerosol compositions and otherwise collect and crunch daytime and nighttime urban-center atmospheric conditions. Among other things, scientists will plug the data into computer simulations that test innovative smog-reduction techniques and technologies.

With the NSF grants in hand as of this month, the updated flight plan has groundwork and planning for both missions beginning in earnest in 2021, with flights scheduled to lift off in 2022.

Shepson trumpeted an unprecedented chance to compare and contrast atmospheric data “from one of the most remote locations … to one of the most polluted.”

“These grants represent exciting opportunities for SoMAS to lead two exceptional teams of researchers in exploring our understanding of the composition and chemistry of the atmosphere,” the dean said. “We are honored to have this opportunity … and expect to collect data that will be invaluable for our long-term research and for atmospheric scientists worldwide.”