Once Upon a Time in the North

The title of this post is borrowed from Phillip Pullman’s prequel to his Dark Materials trilogy. I loved these books as a child, and by happy coincidence ended up studying for my masters at the college on which Jordan College in the novels is based. The reference to journeys northward and parallels with searching for particles struck me as appropriate.

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View from the DC8 back to the NASA-Armstrong hangar in Palmdale, California (Credit: Christina Williamson).

Pre-flight in the Californian desert heat at 4am, and a sunrise take off felt very far removed from out aim of 80 degrees north. There were however two key differences from our last flight to the equator and back . One, I was the only one of my three-person-team on board (we’ve always flown two of us before). Two, we’re not coming back (at least not for a while). This is the first leg of the round-the-world part of the journey. The plan was simple: Anchorage, Alaska, via as-far-north-as-we-can-get-with-the-fuel-we-have.

Flying up the west coast of the US and into Canada was stunning. We passed above beautiful mountain ranges and volcanoes over Oregan, Washinton and into Cananda. We stayed at high altitude to conserve fuel for the northern part of the leg.

Mount Rainer viewed from the DC8 flying from Palmdale CA to Anchorage AK (Credit: Christina Williamson).

Mid-way above Canada we found ourselves above a heavy blanket of cloud. We could see when we passed through the jet stream, because the winds there are very strong. This jet-stream of fast moving air around the arctic acts to isolate (to a degree) the air masses north of it from those at mid-latitudes. This is part of what makes it so interesting to study arctic air. We’re interested in how much pollution from lower latitudes affects things here, and to see what happens in the atmosphere where it’s much cleaner than most places we get to sample. People have observed lots of new particle formation (where small aerosol particles form directly in the atmosphere, changing from the gas phase into a solid or liquid phase) in the artic in summer time before, and I was interested to see if we would also witness this process. I need to analyze the data before I can really say what we sampled on this flight.

Once through the jet stream we found a hole in the clouds and managed to descend. We were in the arctic, flying over broken sea ice. It was beautiful and serene. Just ice and water below and white clouds above. We saw lots of melt pools of bright blue water on the ice.

Flying over the arctic on the DC8 (Credit: Christina Williamson).

Somewhat reluctantly we found another hole in the clouds and ascended, to stick to our brief of scanning the atmosphere, and to conserve fuel. It’s interesting to sample at all altitudes, but heading so far north and being low over the ice was very exciting for all on board. The furthest North we got was 79 degrees N, definitely a record for me.

We then headed west towards Alaska, making a missed approach over Dead Horse. The land here was interesting, lots of pools of water, and strange hexagonal patterns in the grass the I’m told are caused by permafrost melt.

Views over Dead Horse, Alaska. (Credit: Christina Williamson)
Views over Dead Horse, Alaska. (Credit: Christina Williamson)

We then came further south over Alaska, making another missed approach at Fairbanks, and eventually landing in Anchorage, where the mountains, ocean and cool, damp air were there to greet us as a refreshing change from the Californian desert.


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Me and the DC8 having arrived in Anchorage. (Credit: Max Dollner, University of Vienna).

We had a hard down day in Anchorage. Most of this was spent servicing the instruments and processing data from the flight, but I also found some time in the evening to take a short stroll to a beautiful beach and have dinner with colleagues looking over a lake on which water-planes were frequently taking off and landing. It’s definitely a nice bonus that we get to see beautiful places like this while working.

Views during and evening stroll in Anchorage, Alaska (Credit: Christina Williamson).
Some of the ATom science team having dinner in Anchorage, Alaska. From left to right: Eric Apel (UCAR), Kirk Ullmann (UCAR), Jeff Peischl (CIRES/NOAA), Joseph Kaitch (CIRES/NOAA), Christina Williamson (CIRES/NOAA), Maximilian Dollner (University of Vienna).





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