Notes from the Field: Helicopter Sampling in Alaska

Earlier this week, Professor David Butman returned from spending 11 days in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, where he had the memorable opportunity to conduct his field sampling by helicopter and float plane. He was able to coordinate the trip on a shoestring budget, as well, thanks to a great partnership with NASA and colleagues at the University of North Carolina, the U.S. Geological Survey, and Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington (where Butman holds a joint appointment).

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

Professor Butman’s research involves measuring fluxes of carbon dioxide and methane in water systems—especially in Arctic and boreal ecosystems—and how those releases of greenhouse gasses are impacting the global carbon cycle and climate change. At a conference two years ago, he connected with Professor Tamlin Pavelsky, a hydrologist at the University of North Carolina’s Department of Geological Sciences. They stayed in touch and kept talking about potential collaborations, and their interests eventually aligned over an engineering project in Alaska.

Pavelsky has been helping with field calibration for a new radar sensor that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is planning to launch on a satellite in 2020. Through its Surface Water and Ocean Topography, or SWOT, mission, NASA is developing this sensor to observe changes in water level to within a millimeter of accuracy, which will have important applications for measuring water volume in lakes and rivers, as well as impacts of flooding.

Daylight extended until nearly midnight, giving them incredibly long days to collect samples. “You lose track of time,” says Butman, taking a “sampling selfie” here.

Daylight extended until nearly midnight, giving them incredibly long days to collect samples. “You lose track of time,” says Butman (taking a “sampling selfie” here).

Right now, they’re in the middle of an intense campaign to calibrate the radar sensor and test it by flying over different landforms and water features. So when Butman learned from Pavelsky that some of those test sites would include the Yukon Flats, he pitched the idea of tagging along to conduct his own biogeochemistry measurements at the same time. He had already marked some of those same areas for future sampling, and the timing was perfect to draw different programs together for common goals. NASA agreed to bring him along, and they ended up covering the expense of the helicopter and plane flights in Alaska, and Butman handled the equipment and labor.

He seized the opportunity and spent 16 to 17 hours in the field on the trip. Butman flew around with a pilot and a student technician to assist him, locating lakes from the air and heading down to take measurements. Assisted by Alaska’s endless summer sunshine, they were able to collect tons of data from 18 different lakes. “It was kind of exciting,” he says. “Some of these systems have never been measured.”

Butman has another proposal in with NASA to fund continued research in the Yukon area, and he definitely hopes to get back up there next year. “It was one of my top three field experiences so far, for sure.”

Photos © David Butman.

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