New program leverages commercial airliners to collect climate change data

Fuels |  2 min. read

As countries work to address climate change, tracking and monitoring variations in greenhouse gas emissions is an essential component to any long-term mitigation strategy.

A report from the United Nations Human Settlement Program found that, while the world’s cities only cover 2 percent of global land area, they account for nearly 70 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions. However, cities are also places where the greatest efficiencies can be made to reduce these emissions.  There are already a number of tools currently being used to understand how these GHG levels are changing and how to move our economies into more sustainable operating futures.

Among those tools already in use are commercial airliners. A long-standing program, Comprehensive Observation Network for Trace gases by AIrLiner or CONTRAIL, in Japan has been using airlines for this purpose for several years.

“Commercial airlines provide a powerful observational platform for obtaining free tropospheric CO2 systematically for long periods of time over a large geographical space.”

Given the number of regular flights over cities across the globe during standard operations, ramping up this tool could provide significant research potential in coming years. Using airliners provides new data points, collected at a range of altitudes, times of day, and varied weather conditions.

A recently published study discussed many of these findings, collected by Japan’s commercial airlines over 34 cities globally.

“This study suggests that commercial airliner measurements can provide useful urban CO2 data that are complementary to the data collected from other observational platforms, such as ground stations and satellites,” said Tomohiro Oda about his data, which was used in the study.

The CONTRAIL program, which houses continuous measuring equipment in the front and back of airline hulls, was developed over a number of years, in partnership with a number of scientific and sustainability organizations.

Commercial airliners, which rely on refined jet fuels for power and a range of petroleum-based petrochemical products in their construction and maintenance, can fill a gap in data monitoring, particularly in parts of the world where it can be difficult to secure measurements on the ground, including remote locales or developing nations.

In the coming years, don’t be surprised if the plane you ride on for a business trip or a family vacation is doing double duty as a data collector, helping propel us to a cleaner future.


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