Scientific Aviation Completes Its First Project in Europe

Scientific Aviation Completes Its First Project in Europe

It was nearly a month ago now that N728VM touched down in Bergen, Norway with Steve Conley at the helm to embark on our first European project. For five long days before that, Steve piloted his airplane (the newest in our fleet of four Mooneys) the 4300 nautical miles from the foothills of Boulder, Colorado to the rocky and rain-soaked shores of Norway, stopping along the way in Quebec, Nunavut, Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland. This was a bucket list trip for Steve. After all, flying a single-engine airplane across the frigid North Atlantic waters is not a journey attempted by many. So it was with mixed emotion that Steve landed in Norway—jubilant that his Atlantic crossing went off without a hitch, but deflated by the realization that the weather in coastal Norway was far from the clear sky, VFR flight conditions that we like to have for our research flights.

In the end it took twenty-six (mostly rainy) days to complete ten research flights. Even at that, many of the flights were cut shorter than usual as afternoon clouds and fog would roll in to envelope the coast and chase Steve and his metal bird back to their nest. Many days it was simply grey and raining from sunrise to sunset and every hour in between—a situation that gave Steve ample opportunity for long hikes in the rain, since flying was out of the question.

Now that this project is finally behind us and we have moved the plane to Romania in preparation for the next one (and Steve has mostly dried out from his wonderfully wet Norwegian adventure), we can finally take a well-deserved respite and reflect on the work that brought us here.

As you may recall from our previous post, Scientific Aviation came to Europe at the request of UN Environment, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Climate & Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), European Commission (EC), and the Oil & Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI). This international Oil & Gas Methane Partnership is a voluntary initiative that was created to help industry companies to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. While the fossil energy industry is certainly not the only emitter of methane (or other greenhouse gases), it is one of the dominant sources of anthropogenic (human-caused) methane, and reducing the methane emissions from the energy sector is a vital part of mitigating the most severe potential impacts of climate change. Scientific Aviation’s measurements in Norway (and soon in Romania) are part of a series of peer-reviewed scientific studies organized by the CCAC Partnership that were born out of a call by EDF and several industry companies at the COP21 summit in Paris to better quantify the oil and gas industry’s contribution to global methane emissions.

In Norway, petroleum dominates as the country’s largest industry, and it is an integral and critical part of the national economy. For an industry that only got its start in the 1960’s, the growth has been explosive and transformational. Today Norway sits as the 8th largest producer of oil and the 3rd largest producer of natural gas in the world.

Norway’s vast deposits of oil and gas lie buried within the Norwegian Continental Shelf (NCS), which itself is four times the area of mainland Norway and constitutes roughly one-third of the European continental shelf. The region under the North Sea was the first to be developed, starting in the 1960’s, and development has since spread slowly northwards into the Norwegian and Barents Seas. Today there are over 180 offshore rigs dotting the waters along Norway’s coastline.

With the prevalence of offshore production rigs in this region and elsewhere, there is a clear need to accurately account for the methane emissions from these facilities and understand their contribution to the global methane budget. Unfortunately, the fact that these structures are surrounded by water and situated anywhere from several tens to even hundreds of miles offshore makes them challenging to measure and monitor by conventional means. For these facilities, airborne platforms are an ideal solution.

Back in early 2018, Scientific Aviation was part of a similar study in the Gulf of Mexico working with EDF and the University of Michigan. This study was also spearheaded by the UN, CCAC, and OGCI, and was aimed at quantifying the emissions from the offshore platforms located there. We were able to demonstrate at that time that our manned aircraft platform was ideally suited for getting out to these platforms and sampling their emissions plumes. Thus, when this latest round of methane studies were being formulated for European regions, we were called upon as a widely trusted and reliable partner.

Although the facilities in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea are quite similar, the weather and climate are worlds apart. What we typically look for in terms of weather conditions is, firstly, mostly clear skies. The reason for this is that we are limited to a minimum safe operating altitude of the aircraft (which is typically as low as 200 ft AGL), thus, we need sufficient vertical mixing to make the methane plume rise off the ground level and reach up to where our plane can sample. Sunlight is one of the factors that drives vertical mixing since sun heats the ground and hot air rises. (Mostly clear skies are also needed from a safety point of view, since we are flying awfully close to the ground and we certainly need to be able to see it!) The second thing we look for is wind: we need some level of moderate winds in a mostly stable direction to push the plume in one downwind direction so that we can sample it fully. This is all to say that the frequent coastal fog and rain in Norway were far from our ideal conditions, and we were lucky to find short weather windows of time to do our measurements.

The sites we sampled were in regions very appropriately named Troll and Åsgard, and located between 50 – 150 nautical miles offshore. There is a significant amount of regular helicopter traffic to and from these platforms, but the helicopter pilots and air traffic control proved to be very accommodating and easy to work with as we dropped in low to circle the rigs. Some of the rigs were impressive indeed—imposing marvels of engineering with heights that rival the tallest buildings in the world (though most of it is hidden below the ocean surface). Even though there’s not much atmospheric vertical mixing over the cold water, the height of the rigs themselves allowed the methane plumes to be higher than 200 ft, which was fortunate since we weren’t too keen on getting any closer to the water.

It will take some time yet before the results of these measurements are ready to be released and published. From our point of view though, we can say that this project turned out to be a very valuable demonstration of our methodology. Typically, when we do measurements at on-shore sites, the methane levels in the background air are somewhat elevated and/or variable, simply due to the prevalence of other methane sources throughout the area (e.g., landfills, agriculture, other oil and gas sites). This methane background can influence our limit of detection, since we have to be able to clearly distinguish the “signal” (i.e., a methane plume) from the background “noise” (i.e., variability) to make an accurate measurement. The background air in the North Sea turned out to be an excellent test case and allowed us to calculate an accurate and reliable limit of detection as low as 5 kg/hr.

The flights in Norway may be complete, but the experience is sure to stay with us for a long time to come. With any luck, we’ll be back some day to continue the measurements and pay a visit to the friends we’ve made along the way. Until then, we are grateful to have been a part of this work.