Reaching to the skies for earth science

Partnership for Public Service
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; 9:55 AM

Two federal agencies will embark on creating the nation's first unmanned aircraft mission for earth science research next month. The effort that could provide an enormous amount of data on climate change and the ozone layer, and help improve storm, flood and drought forecasting.

At the center of this innovative project is David Fahey, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research physicist who was instrumental in establishing the science goals of the mission and helping choose payload instruments and teams. He will also lead the effort to analyze the data when the aircraft returns.

Fahey said the unmanned flights above the Pacific Ocean, set to begin in April, could "revolutionize" how scientists approach atmospheric studies. The Global Hawk Pacific Mission is a joint effort by NOAA and NASA. The Global Hawk's first unmanned flight will be followed by five others and rely on remotely-controlled instruments to collect data from remote regions where manned aircraft rarely operate."We will demonstrate for the first time that the Global Hawk can carry sophisticated sampling instruments, acquire scientific-quality data and access remote regions of the globe in long-duration flights," Fahey said.

The data will be relayed to Fahey and his colleagues, providing measurements of dust, smoke and pollution that cross the Pacific from Asia and Siberia. The information will help assess Arctic ice change and affects on ecosystems and coasts, and data to better understand climate change and to improve the accuracy of storm, flood and drought forecasts.

"Unmanned aircraft are clearly part of the future. Demonstrating the Global Hawk as an earth science research tool has long-term value to the atmospheric science community and the American public," said Fahey.

Paul Newman of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, who is sharing scientific duties with Fahey, said his colleague is the perfect person for this job.

"Dave has more experience running a high-altitude aircraft field experiment than any other scientist in the world," said Newman. "Dave also was trained as a laboratory scientist ¿ he is very thorough and careful."

The Global Hawk is the latest cutting-edge project for Fahey, who has been studying earth science for more than 30 years. Fahey's work was instrumental in shaping the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty signed by almost 200 countries that regulates ozone-depleting substances.Fahey's seminal research on the ozone layer has included new measurement techniques that allowed for insights into the Antarctic stratosphere and the observation of a new class of polar cloud particles in the Arctic. His papers described key elements about the formation of the ozone hole and disproved the conventional wisdom. In addition, Fahey's research has provided the first empirical description of the chemical mechanism linking volcanoes to ozone depletion. Fahey also pioneered the simultaneous measurement of ground-level chemistry necessary for designing effective air quality management programs.

"He's an absolute example of how much good the world can be when the best and the brightest is hired by the federal government," said Stephen Andersen a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist who worked with Fahey on the Montreal Protocol. "He's done pure science and he's changed the world. Who could want more than that?"

In 2000, Fahey led a mission that flew from Sweden to the North Pole and discovered large nitric acid particles, which play a key role in the chemistry of ozone depletion.

Dee Lewis Porter, a pilot at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, cited Fahey's in-depth scientific knowledge and his quiet leadership as key factors in the success of the 2000 mission and its breakthrough in understanding of the ozone layer.

"Dave is a visionary. He can see the end from the beginning. He knows what it takes to make a success out of something," Porter said.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and Visit for more about the organization's work.

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