Thu, 10/13/2016

Lauren Williams

OC Register

UC Irvine professor Donald Blake, a pioneer in collecting air samples and an expert in analytical atmospheric chemistry, displays an air collection canister in his lab at UCI last week. Blake is studying how air pollution affects greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere.

Picture Credit:

Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG

Strapped into a NASA-modified DC-8, UC Irvine professor Donald Blake fiddles with some knobs on a crate that holds canisters that contain the key element of his career:


The plane (and Blake and the air he’s trying to collect) are several thousand feet higher than what is typical for a commercial flight.

The canisters (more than a thousand for this trip) are sucking in air through a rig outside the jet, affixed to a window.

So as Blake and some of his grad students collect gasses from the frigid troposphere, their primary concern is warmth. They bundle up. They see water inside the plane freeze.

The particulars are unusual, even for Blake, but the concept is not. Blake travels everywhere to collect air – to places pristine and polluted, rich and poor, near and far. He is the Indiana Jones of atmospheric chemistry research, minus the Nazi car chases.

“A lot of travel, a lot of excitement and a lot of what I consider to be very useful science,” Blake said of his 30-year career.

“I could never have scripted this.”


Where other climate scientists might be fussy about their technology and their process, Blake stays nimble.

He’s been smuggled into Mecca to study air quality during the hajj. He’s gone to the Gulf of Mexico to capture air downwind of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He’s hauled his canisters to burning wildfires in the boreal forest of Northern Canada and, recently, to a site outside Porter Ranch, where a leak spewed some 100,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere – the largest such leak in U.S. history.

At 64, Blake will collect air with and for pretty much anybody. He’s worked with NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Air Quality Management District. He’s worked with other researchers, other schools. On a recent school day, his lab prepped samples to send off to the Netherlands, Ohio and Berkeley.

But as fun as it sounds – as fun as it is – Blake’s work and reputation are serious. He’s a leader in climate change research.

“The thing about Don is he’s ridiculously friendly and he uses that to make connections with everyone in the atmosphere community. He collaborates with basically everyone,” said Andreas Beyersdorf, a former graduate student of Blake’s who now teaches at Cal State San Bernardino.

“The data he collects is something everyone is interested in.”

Blake’s students have gone on to form a key part of the world of climate research, a small army of people working on projects that could, literally, help save the planet.

“I think the reason his group keeps getting selected now is they have years and years of solid research,” said Lambert Doezema a professor at Loyola Marymount University who studied with Blake between 1998 and 2004. “Everyone has a lot of respect for the measurements his group is making.”

Blake wasn’t the first to collect air for science, but his consistent measuring of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the longest-running research of its kind. He’s authored or co-authored some 500 scientific journal articles.

Still, he collects air. And collecting air can be an adventure.

During a 23-day stretch in August, as part of a project known as ATom, Blake was among 42 scientists and crew members in that NASA DC-8 to crisscross the globe for air samples.

They flew north of Barrow, Alaska, down to Anchorage and, after that, to Honolulu. They traveled farther south, eventually reaching Punta Arenas, Chile. Then they turned northeast, taking an Atlantic Ocean route up to a remote air base in Greenland.

Blake remembers sweating in Samoa and, hours later, freezing in New Zealand as they closed in on Antarctica.

“We were going from tropical summer to winter in one day,” said Nick Vizenor, a UCI grad student in chemistry who accompanied Blake on a leg of the voyage.

Along the way, the aircraft alternately cruised as low as 500 feet over the ocean and back up to 42,000 feet, while Blake and other scientists sampled the air. It was the first of four deployments planned over three years.

“The question is, What does the air look like in 2016 in both hemispheres?” Blake said on a recent Wednesday.

Blake got his start in atmospheric chemistry while studying under F. Sherwood Rowland. After much controversy, Rowland would go on to win the Nobel Prize more than two decades after publishing a paper showing aerosol gases contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer.

In 1978, Rowland and Blake noticed methane levels changed in South America, setting off a 30-year quest in which researchers and students travel the world sampling and testing the air to gather data on changes in the atmosphere.

Through this work, Blake has made groundbreaking research showing that methane was increasing around the globe, among other significant scientific finds, said Aaron Katzenstein, the rules and planning manager at the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Katzenstein studied with Blake at UCI for over five years as a graduate student.

“Don was really one of the first researchers that started looking at these real low levels of atmospheric acid,” Katzenstein said.


Blake’s work is surprisingly low-tech.

Canisters are filled with air on-site and later analyzed back at the school. On the most recent NASA mission, some other universities took weeks to move in their sophisticated devices.

“Caltech next to us has lasers and lights, liquid nitrogen,” Blake said. “We’ve got some cans and a pump.”

That allows him to be fast, and that means he can measure air events, not just long-term trends.

Blake’s 2-liter steel canisters are smaller than a watermelon and light enough to hold with one hand. While getting dinner in Los Angeles near the La Brea Tar Pits, Blake might take a sample for later analysis.

Blake’s passion has been contagious.

“I think that when I first got into chemistry ... I kind of wanted to do something that had a real-world application,” said former student Beyersdorf.

“Since then, I’ve studied emissions of smoke from fires and what effect those have on the environment.

“All that was possible because I went to UCI and worked with Don.”

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