The Kafue Flats Experience

By Dave Lowry, Tim and Trish Broderick, Musa Lambakasa, James France, Stéphane Baugitte
Photos by Tim and Trish Broderick and Dave Lowry

The first ZWAMPS campaign consisted of both aircraft and ground surveys, these being linked most closely in the Kafue Flats region over the period Feb 2 to 5. The Kafue Flats are a floodplain wetland, extending from Itezhi-Tezhi Dam in the west, some 240 km east to Kafue town and never more than 50 km wide ( The river has changed course many times across its plain leaving scattered oxbow lakes and isolated snake-like sections of meanders to stagnate outside of flood season (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 River Kafue lakes and meanders.

Fig. 1 River Kafue lakes and meanders.

The surveys and sampling commenced on Saturday with an intensive 4-hour zigzag flight over the region, designed by Keith Bower (Fig. 2), with elevated methane noted toward the eastern end near the start of the flight, before vertical mixing reduced these signals. The flight was very much enjoyed by Tim and our Zambian Ministry of Mines group, including Musa. Separating out the wetland source from the flight measurements and isotope data will be quite difficult because there were also numerous rural cattle herds and very extensive burning plumes producing methane (Fig. 3).

Fig. 2 End of the zig-zag flight

Fig. 2 End of the zig-zag flight

Fig. 3 Biomass burning plumes close to river

Fig. 3 Biomass burning plumes close to river

On Sunday we attempted to find our way by road to the northern margin of the Kafue Flats through the Blue Lagoon national park. After a 3-hour drive from Lusaka we reached a faded sign saying Nakeenda Lodge 9 km.  The national park sign was even more rusted. Soon we realised that this part of the park had not been visited for a long time as the track became more an overgrown and very muddy path, so we decided to sample air from a dambo in the pristine savanna (Fig. 4). The site was full of butterflies of numerous species, and even a praying mantis was catapulted into the car as we brushed past the luxuriant vegetation (Fig. 5).

Fig. 4 Stéphane directing air sampling

Fig. 4 Stéphane directing air sampling

Fig. 5 Mantis on water bottle

Fig. 5 Mantis on water bottle

Undeterred we decided to approach the park from the NW corner and reached a barrier. Here the head park ranger directed us to the managed game area and wetland.  After a few kilometres we turned off along a narrow track not on maps or GPS. Then followed 20 km over 90 minutes down a narrow and churned up track. As we passed across the invisible park boundary we came to a fishing camp on a rise above the floodplain and its associated biting insects. We were greeted by excited children and an ox cart (Fig. 6). Turns out that we were still some kilometres from the river, the resident lechwe antelope or the Game Ranger patrol camp. At this point we realised we had to get back to Lusaka before dark.

The return was no quicker, especially being interspersed with air sample collection in the pristine national park grassland (Fig. 7), as we carefully traced our way back along interweaving tracks using the GPS. We approached the outskirts of Lusaka as night fell, and on a road without lighting, carefully negotiated many minibuses without lighting and pedestrians bustling across the road to lively markets. Alarm bells had been ringing back at base when we failed to arrive back for the evening briefing and our Blue Lagoon destination was all that was known. As the city approached and phone reception returned we were able to let all know we had not broken down in the bush.

Fig. 6 Ox cart and children in the camp

Fig. 6 Ox cart and children in the camp

Fig. 7 Musa and Dave fishing for air

Fig. 7 Musa and Dave fishing for air

On Monday we had planned to sample on the south side of the floodplain, overnight in the Relax Hotel in Monze and then meet up with Mike Daly at the Lochinvar hot springs on Tuesday, but after breakfast Tim noticed that the Ford had a rear puncture from our toils the previous day, which fortunately hadn’t materialised on the evening drive back. Tim headed off hoping for a quick fix, but a brake fluid leak was also discovered from a distorted and corroded seal. Many discussions and calls later a replacement vehicle was delivered at 6 in the evening.

Plans quickly changed and the proposed rendezvous with Mike was scrapped due to the long distance, and the focus for Tuesday was to get into the sugar cane plantations and wetlands near Mazabuka. All was fine until about 2 hours into the drive when, on probably the steepest hill climb on the Kafue-Livingstone main road, there was a load bang from the rear of the vehicle. This time a major blow out and a 3 cm long rip in the tyre. Tim and Musa got to work on the jack while we jammed the other wheels with some lovely roadside calc-silicate boulders. Convoys of lorries heading for Botswana and South Africa laden with copper and other goods struggled past us. It soon became apparent that the supplied jack was not high enough for our Landcruiser, but we managed to flag down a local farmer and get the change done.

That’s when we noticed a 1cm diameter, perfectly round hole through the alloy wheel below the rip in the tyre, with a very clear entry and exit direction from a high velocity impact (Figs. 8 and 9). None of us had seen anything like that before and we still don’t know the cause, so we will leave this to your imagination.

Fig. 8 Hole in the alloy wheel – inside view

Fig. 8 Hole in the alloy wheel – inside view

Fig. 9 Hole in the alloy wheel – outside view

Fig. 9 Hole in the alloy wheel – outside view

At Mazabuka we found a tyre repairperson and then followed a wild goose chase to find a welder, then through sugar cane plantations to a market for electrodes, which then didn’t work because the alloy was wrong and required a DC current. After 2 more lost hours, we had a reality check, dumped the wheel and tyre into the back and decided to risk it on the spare and take the 30 km of dirt tracks NE toward the wetlands and river. With co-ordination of aerial images and GPS we headed down a narrow track and finally came to lush vegetation, reed beds (bulrushes) and clusters of water lilies, before the track stopped abruptly in a small clearing populated by a group of fisher folk. We proceeded to collect air samples from different heights in the reed beds. In the midst of this the reeds seemed to part and a small canoe cruised into the bank laden with good-sized Kafue bream (Figs. 10 and 11).

Fig. 10 Boatmen in the reed beds

Fig. 10 Boatmen in the reed beds

Fig. 11 Cargo of Kafue bream

Fig. 11 Cargo of Kafue bream

The drive back was far less eventful. The next morning the car hire people inspected the wheel and seemed overly keen to give us our deposit back and get us on our way. We can certainly look back on a couple of eventful and somewhat surreal days that we won’t forget in a hurry and hope that the few highly prized air samples were well worth our efforts to collect them.

The Lusaka Leg

Operations base in Lusaka, Zambia

Flight planning at the operations base in Lusaka, Zambia

The final swamp survey of the campaign has just landed, so I thought this would be a good time for an update on our work here in Zambia. Since arriving on Wednesday we’ve conducted three flights over three different wetland areas, with each of them providing a rich, complex dataset for us all to get our teeth into when we get home. The Kafue river floodplain and the Bangweulu and Lukanga swamps all exhibited the telltale signs of strong methane emitters, with large concentrations enhancements observed during each flight. This large signal should make Rebecca’s life easier when determining source isotopic signatures (see “Meanwhile, back in the lab”), and we have started putting our heads together to determine the best ways of calculating how much methane each source area emits. While we won’t get into the nitty-gritty of the data analysis until we return, sitting together in the bar after a flight provides a great opportunity to foment some ideas.

The Bangweulu sortie was particularly special for me, as it was my first flight up in the jump seat as mission scientist 1. At first it seems like a daunting task, choosing where and at what height to fly in order to get the most out of the time available. However, with sage advice from veteran mission scientists beforehand, patience from the pilots, and help and encouragement from the rest of the team down the back, all went smoothly. Having surveyed the swamp, we flew back along a rift valley, hugging as close to the side wall as we could, looking for any sign of geological emissions. The data from this will need picking over in more detail before conclusions can be drawn, but from a scenery perspective this has to take top spot among flights I have ever been on. Looking up at the Muchinga Mountains from 1500 ft above the valley floor was a breathtaking sight for which I feel very privileged.

That leads me on to a topic that’s been covered many times in these blogs before, but now we’ve reached the end of the campaign I feel it bears repeating. These detachments are hard work, but the early starts and the weeks spent away from home don’t seem a hardship when you’re part of such a close team. As I write this we’re sitting out on the terrace with a Mosi in hand (other Zambia lagers are presumably available…) with impala wandering by, and I can reflect on friendships made and renewed. I’d completely echo Michelle’s earlier post – the rambling late night discussions, debates and arguments have been second to none, and I’ll certainly miss them when we leave. I’m looking forward to being home, but I’m looking forward to the next one too…

Farewell, and thanks for all the methane - Zwamps team

Farewell, and thanks for all the methane – Zwamps team

Bagsy the Air Samples: Life on the aircraft for the isotope bag sampling

James France and his sack of bags

James France and his sack of bags

Unlike quite a lot of the science on board the FAAM aircraft, the high precision carbon isotopes in methane have to be done back at the lab at Royal Holloway. To make this happen, we have to collect bags of air mid-flight as we pass over areas of interest, trying to capture the range of sources in the flight plan. However, it does mean that our role can look at little bit budget compared to the needs of a complex and expensive instrument rack measuring species in real-time during the flights.

The life of the isotope sampling team depends on your point of view… The instrument scientist who has to turn up 4 hours before take-off sees the isotope sampler swanning onto the aircraft at the last minute, switching on a pump and a laptop and writing some sticky labels. The logistics team who despair after each flight as we hand over a massive sack containing around 20 bags of air and ask them to find somewhere to store them and then ship them back home. The crew who just hear calls on the radio from the less technically named “bags”. Suggested nicknames which have fortunately not gained traction include “Team Bags”, “Dr Bag” and “Bag Man”…

I prefer to think us more of an Ngolo Kante or Anders Herrera (Ed – can we have a football reference in a science blog?). It’s not altogether obvious what we contribute until all the data is looked at, well after the campaign is done.

Collecting the air

It really is a simple as it sounds. The FAAM aircraft is fitted a large air inlet line which directs air from outside the aircraft to the various instruments, and the bag sampler has a pump which allows air from the outside to be directed in to the bags. The bags are made by SKC, and have been demonstrated in the laboratory to hold the methane without any leaks for months at a time, which gives us plenty of time to do the analysis. To show the full complexity of it, I agreed to do a special with plenty of detail for an upcoming edition of the Barometer podcast run by the University of Manchester.

In order for us to get useful data to identify the source we need to collect a suite of samples at as large a range of concentrations of methane as possible, fortunately the aircraft is well equipped and can measure atmospheric methane concentration in real-time. We use this information to try to sample the air into the bags at the most scientifically useful points.

Why are we interested?

As I’m sure you’ve read on many other posts on this blog and others, methane is rising globally and we’re not entirely sure why… One of the possible reasons is an increase in emissions from tropical wetlands, so we’re on this campaign to try and gather information needed such as the isotopic source signature and the flux of methane being emitted from tropical methane sources. There’s a lovely new paper (shameless plug) which has just been accepted which looks at the impact of methane globally “Very strong atmospheric methane growth in the four years 2014 – 2017: Implications for the Paris Agreement” which will be available in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles soon…

We’ll keep the blog updated with something later in the year, once the laboratory analysis has started to take shape.

by James France

On the aircraft, “Team Bags” is James France, Rebecca Fisher and Dave Lowry of Royal Holloway University Earth Science Department.

On the ground, a separate but co-ordinated with the aircraft, sampling campaign is ongoing with Tim Broderick, Trish Broderick and Dave Lowry.

Meanwhile, back in the lab

Wednesday 30th January

While FAAM and the ZWAMPS team head on to Zambia, I have returned home from a busy week of air sampling in Uganda. This week I’m back in the greenhouse gas lab at Royal Holloway. Soon we will have a lab full of Ugandan and Zambian air in Flexfoil bags and WAS cases, so we need to make some space.

Once the air samples return to Royal Holloway we will first measure methane and carbon dioxide mole fraction in each sample using a Picarro cavity ringdown spectrometer, and we will check the measurements against those made by the onboard FGGA. Then it’s over to the mass spectrometer for methane isotopic analysis. We use continuous flow isotope ratio mass spectrometry to measure δ13C in methane in permil (‰). Each sample takes around an hour to analyse, and with more than 500 air samples expected from the MOYA and ZWAMPS campaigns that will mean a lot of time spent in the lab over the coming weeks.

Analysing methane δ13C in bags of air by isotope ratio mass spectrometry at Royal Holloway

Analysing methane δ13C in bags of air by isotope ratio mass spectrometry at Royal Holloway

Methane in background ambient air has an isotopic composition of around -47 ‰. Methane from biogenic sources such as wetlands is more depleted in 13C, making the isotopic composition more negative. Methane from fires is relatively enriched in 13C, making the isotopic composition less negative. This paper by Rebecca Brownlow provides some of the isotopic signatures we have measured from tropical methane sources in previous ground campaigns:

Isotopic analysis of the samples collected onboard the aircraft will help distinguish the proportion of methane from fires and from wetlands in methane elevations seen over wide areas of tropical Africa.

By Rebecca Fisher

The MOYA podcast has landed

MOYA has teamed up with the Barometer podcast to produce some special podcasts from the field.

In this introductory episode, Joe Pitt (instrument scientist and mission scientist on MOYA) has a chat with Grant Allen, the Manchester lead on MOYA. They talk about the scope of the project, including some of the challenges we face in doing such ambitious field work in a country that FAAM has not previously worked in.

Listen to this first episode here:

Into the fires

Tuesday 29 January
Fire map from NASA

Fire map from NASA on 29 January 2019

Today’s morning fires survey team are just on their way back from the airport. Yesterday’s flight was great (apart from the fiery temperatures in the cockpit and a very bumpy ride with the strong daytime turbulence/thermals). We sampled a mix of mile-wide flaming and smouldering fire lines in the north of Uganda with varying CH4/CO2/CO ratios and some interesting fire tracers reported from other instruments, sampled by flying along-wind and across-wind at heights between 1000 ft and 6000 ft above ground. We were joined by a couple of flocks of black and white birds at 3000 ft that passed the window rather fast… Much like the Senegal surveys, there was a thick regional haze from the fires and a faint smell of smoke for the whole flight.

Flight track from the north Uganda fire survey

Flight track from the north Uganda fire survey

We collected bag samples on each pass through the plumes for isotopic analysis and much of the material burning was low-level scrub and papyrus. The land was very dry (much drier than this time last year) and there were many tens of small and large fires in view from the horizon at 3000 ft, most of which appeared to be managed land clearance. The data collected on these flights will improve the knowledge of the isotopic signatures of biomass burning from these plant types in this region, which will better refine models that use isotope measurements as constraints on emission source regions and source types.

By Grant Allen


And I was just getting into the swing of things…

Saturday 26 January
Flight C129 - Lake Wamala survey and sampling the plume downwind of Kampala

Flight C129 – Lake Wamala survey and sampling the plume downwind of Kampala

This morning, the aircraft did a repeat of yesterday’s flight plan over Lake Wamala and downwind of Kampala. This gives us another chance to examine the methane emissions from the lake and surrounding swamps (which I think are papyrus swamps like the ones we saw at the nearby airfield the other day), which also might have been polluted by some small fires dotted about the place, and to look at a more complex mix of pollutants coming from the capital city. The FAAM aircraft has done flights like this downwind of cities like London and Lagos, so it will be interesting to see what we find here. Everyone I spoke to seemed very happy with how the flight went, as collecting good data is what we are all here for!

I wasn’t on board, as I’m going back to the UK tonight after nearly a week here. It’s a shame I only got to do one flight, but this is not that surprising given how uncertain it is doing field work in a country that we have never worked in before. You need to build in a lot of contingency for these things, and me having only one flight is not even close to being a factor in our plans. I came along to help with the heavy workload of planning and flying during an intense campaign, so hopefully the others who are staying for another week or more will have been able to pace themselves a bit more than they would otherwise. You can’t really have scientists working long days every day for weeks on end – it’s not healthy even if it’s just for a short time in the field. It also helps to have extra people on hand in case of illness. We have been putting 3 mission scientists on the crew list but flying just 2 of them. This means that if one of us feels even a little ill, they can stay on the ground without any problem with having the right passes sorted out for the airport in advance. This is working really well, as it’s fairly common to get a tummy ache on campaign in tropical regions, and nobody wants to be on an aircraft when that happens!

The operations centre for the field campaign

Just resting our eyes in the operations centre for the field campaign

I’ll miss the excitement of the field campaign when I go back to the UK, as you don’t get the same insight into every aspect of the work from afar – like discussing options for upcoming flights based on how the weather forecast is developing over breakfast, finding out the latest instrument issues or breakthroughs at lunch, or mapping out that future Nature paper over a Nile Special lager and curry in the evening. There is so much value to be gained from going on a campaign that I am extremely grateful I was able to take part. I will continue to send in forecast maps that I have set up with the Met Office for the campaign to help with the flight planning, and keep tabs on what’s going on, but I will really miss the random chats I won’t have with all the great people working on this project. The campaign hasn’t even finished, and I can’t wait until the next project meeting comes along!


A swamp and a city

Friday 25 January

Part 1

On board the FAAM aircraft for flight C128

On board the FAAM aircraft for flight C128

I am on the bus to Entebbe Airport for my first and only MOYA flight. We have planned a flight over the nearby Lake Wamala, which is a lot smaller than Lake Victoria (which is like a sea really) or Lake Kyoga,  where they flew to yesterday. I am “mission scientist 1” for this flight, and James Lee from University of York, who will be mission 2, led the flight planning. This means that I sit in the cockpit with the pilots, and James sits at the back of the aircraft with more access to the live data as it comes in from the instrumentation. You get a fantastic view from the cockpit, with the flip side that it’s quite uncomfortable. Definitely worth it though!

We aim to see methane emissions from the lake, and mission 2 is critical in feeding information about the measurements to mission 1, who spends more time liaising with the pilots.

After Lake Wamala, we want to fly downwind of Kampala to measure the emissions from the city. Hopefully we can take off on time and get back before dark, otherwise we may have to modify our flight plan to avoid birds that come out at dusk. And judging by the dense clouds of flies I’ve seen over the lake after dark, maybe they are an issue too!

Part 2

Happy instrument scientists Dominika and Pat

Happy instrument scientists Dominika and Pat

What a great flight! After all the planning and working on the instruments on the aircraft, it feels like the campaign has got off to a great start. Firstly, it appears that ALL the key instruments worked. This might sound rather basic, but the aircraft is a very hostile environment for instrumentation. Lasers are easily misaligned, overheating can be a problem, changes to air pressure are a constant issue for some instruments. Congratulations to all the instrument scientists who have been working in the heat on the ground to get everything working so well.

We got some great measurements of methane downwind of Lake Wamala, Kampala and of some small fires again. I think we are all very happy that everything went to plan, the wind was as forecast, and the layers of methane in the atmosphere was as expected as well. It’s very rewarding and even euphoric when things work well, and it makes the 34C+ cockpit with a burning hot laptop on your lap well worth it!

And we’re off

Thursday 24th January

Today saw the first science flight of MOYA get off the ground. It was so exciting that I completely forgot, and was in the middle of recording a podcast with Pat Barker from Manchester when it happened. I am sure there was a little cheer from everyone paying attention!

The aircraft went up to Lake Kyoga in the middle of the country, where the aim was to sample wetland emissions of methane. They also saw several plumes of smoke coming from fires, and much of the area was not actually wetland but relatively built up.

It was great to get things started and get some samples over this area. It may be more of a challenge to disentangle the signals from the lake and the fires, but that’s what happens in the real world – things are messy!

There will be a flight tomorrow (Friday 25th) if all goes to plan and then we will really get into the swing of things. Forecasts are looking good for a flight over another Lake and to sample the city of Kampala so I am really looking forward to that one – it’s got a bit of everything!

The Botanical Gardens Redux

Sampling cows at the botanical gardens


On Wednesday, we came back to the Botanical Garden in Entebbe to take some more air bags from termite mounds and cows methane emissions. Even though a thunderstorm was coming (and probably this is why all the meteorologists stayed in the hotel), we managed to get a great range of samples. Thanks to our guide, Peter, we even found some termites and got very close to the local cows.

The Garden is also a great place for bird spotting – part of our group turned into ornithologists. We have seen monkeys, which escaped from the zoo and local dogs too.

So far, the ground work is very successful and we hope, that we will get some great samples from the aircraft as well!

By Dominika Pasternak