School of GeoSciences

Airborne Research

The Facility’s main area of research to date relates to the global carbon cycle, and in particular the contribution of various types of land cover to the uptake and release of atmospheric carbon.

Hyytiala Tower over wing

The aircraft’s ‘standard’ instrumentation fit includes a combination of atmospheric turbulence and chemistry measurements that allow us to measure the rate of exchange of carbon dioxide, water, heat (and, in future, methane) between the land surface and the atmosphere using a technique called eddy covariance. The high precision of the new gas analysis sensors will also allow us to use mass budgeting techniques to quantify these exchanges – essentially by examining the way the concentration of the gases of interest change as an air mass moves across the landscape.





airborne tower sampling
Photocredit: R Konigstedt, MPI

The new hyperspectral imaging system (and former non-imaging systems) allows us to examine the photosynthetic processes taking place in plants by detecting various pigments (and in some cases fluorescence) present in the leaves. Such measurements can indicate physiological stress and photosynthetic efficiency within plants, which can be related to their carbon uptake. Similar measurements are available from satellites at global scales, but at much lower resolution, and generally not on demand. The use of high resolution aerial imaging during focussed campaigns can, however, help to develop approaches and methods applicable through these satellite measurements that can ultimately provide estimates of global or regional carbon exchange.

High-resolution ortho-photography can be used to build highly detailed mosaic images of landscapes over significant areas (for example around intensively monitored fieldsites), which in turn can be used to generate vegetation maps (using, for example image recognition software) and digital elevation models using photogrammetric techniques. Such products can be very useful for analysing both airborne and field-based measurements within their spatial context, as well as exploring specific properties (such as the hydrology, for example) of the landscape.

Taken together, and in combination with land surface and vegetation models, these measuring capabilities provide a very powerful set of tools to examine the feedbacks between vegetation and climatic processes, as well as exploring the impacts of humans and various approaches to management of the environment.

Previous and current projects include the NERC ABACUS project in northern Sweden and Finland, looking at climatic feedbacks at various scales in arctic environments; the NERC/Natural England UKPopnet project in N. Wales, looking at management effects on the carbon dynamics of upland peat bogs; NERC Forest Fluorescence looking at stress effects on carbon uptake within various forest types and their detection by remote sensing (from tower, via aircraft, to satellite scale) in Scotland and Finland; and currently the NERC GREENHOUSE and HOTSPOTS projects looking at the UK’s greenhouse gas budget, and specifically extending our ability to model the contributions from various types of landuse (agriculture, forestry etc) and measure / estimate the release of gases from small scale hot-spots such as landfill sites.