New perspectives on our atmosphere

The atmosphere surrounds us, protects us, and impacts our daily lives. From the quality of the air we breathe, to the weather, to the climate we depend on, this complex system still holds many mysteries for scientists. But thanks to cutting edge technology, researchers in the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate are getting new perspectives on what’s happening in Earth’s atmosphere.

Tim Griffis looks at data from instrumentation on a computer screenProfessor Tim Griffis isn’t afraid of a challenge. He and the rest of the biometeorology group tackle measurement problems and research that goes beyond what was achievable in the past. One such area of research utilizes the Tall Tower Trace Gas Observatory. There they are assessing new methods to measure ammonia – part of the nitrogen cycle, in the atmosphere.

“Ammonia is tricky to measure – because it’s so sticky,” says researcher Matt Erickson, who works with Griffis at the site. “If the ammonia doesn’t make it to the actual measurement instrument, but gets adsorbed along the way, it can bias your results.” But the team doesn’t let that deter them. By careful optimization of sampling procedures and experimenting with new methods, they are working to get accurate concentration information. 

“Over the past 10 years we have improved our understanding of nitrous oxide emissions to the atmosphere, but we lag far behind regarding the magnitude, seasonality, and interannual variability of ammonia emissions. We want to understand how synthetic fertilizer and livestock in the US corn belt are impacting the reactive nitrogen budget of the atmosphere. This has important implications for climate and human health.”

“We’re exploring the frontier of analytical instrumentation to apply advancements in the real world, outside of the lab. It’s exciting and important research to understand how the atmosphere, people, and natural processes interact together,” says Julian Deventer, a Post-Doctoral researcher from Münster University in Germany working jointly with Griffis and Professor Dylan Millet.

Matt Erickson adjusts experimental atmospheric equipment

It’s not just the tall tower site collecting new data on our atmosphere. In Millet’s group, they are going even higher. Using airplanes and satellites, his research group is working with NASA to measure methane emissions around the Midwestern United States.

“Methane is powerful greenhouse gas, much more potent than carbon dioxide,” say Millet. “We know it’s an important factor in our atmosphere and climate but we need better information on how much is being emitted into the atmosphere from various surface sources and when those emissions are occurring.”

The team has already conducted several research flights. A small plane loaded with instruments flies over the research areas and circles through different layers of the atmosphere to collect measurements and data.

“We’re hoping to get a much better understanding of how methane moves through the atmosphere, where it is coming from and how those emissions might change in the future,” explains Millet.

The more we understand about our atmosphere, the better our models of future changes will be. With climate change threatening communities and ecosystems around the world, this research is a vital step to understand, address, and prepare for our future.

Dylan Millet poses in front of one of the research planes used to collect atmospheric data