Last month, aerial photographer and biologist Matevž Lenarčič flew a single-seat airplane across 2000 kilometers of airspace between Easter Island and Totegegie Airport in French Polynesia (right). That lonesome leg was one hop on a 3-month journey around the world, during which Lenarčič and his tiny, lightweight aircraft, a Pipistrel Virus (inset), also touched down on Antarctica, a rare solo feat. Between piloting the plane and collecting photographs for an upcoming book on water, Lenarčič has also collected data on black carbon, or soot, concentrations in the atmosphere. His 290-kilogram plane carries a much-lighter-than-normal Aethalometer, designed by aerosol scientist Griša Močnik of Aerosol in Ljubljana, Slovenia, that measures the optical absorption of the atmosphere and converts it to a rough estimate of soot concentration.
Močnik, whose Aethalometers are already used worldwide at ground stations, hopes to learn enough from Lenarčič’s flight to build instruments capable of riding piggyback on pleasure flights flown by other aviators: “One could build essentially an ad hoc network of instruments … in airplanes [whose operators] would voluntarily participate,” he says.
Aerosol scientists such as Ryan Spackman of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado, already use much more sensitive instruments mounted on Gulf Stream jets to collect black carbon data—but such flights are expensive for scientists. Small private aircraft could help fill in a lot of data gaps, particularly at low altitudes near urban areas where soot concentrations tend to be high enough for an Aethalometer to provide very good data, Spackman says. “The first few kilometers [above ground level] are the most interesting.”