Monitoring the Air at the South Pole
Nick Morgan, station chief at the South Pole Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), and his team monitor baseline atmospheric parameters at the Pole, including carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, stratospheric ozone levels, solar radiation, temperature and aerosols. Basically, ARO analyzes the individual atmospheric components that drive climate. Scripps Oceanographic Institute began monitoring air at the South Pole during the International Geophysical Year in 1957, and data has been recorded since then. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also began collecting data there in the 1970′s.
Nick Morgan discusses monitoring air at the South Pole
South Pole Atmospheric Research Observatory. Photo by Ann Posegate.
The South Pole holds the longest-running carbon dioxide (CO2) record in the world, and one that has displayed an upward trend in annual levels. Measurements at the South Pole set a baseline value for the rest of the world. Antarctica has the cleanest air on Earth: it is thousands of miles from human civilization, and there is no vegetation to affect the carbon cycle. In addition, the Clean Air Sector, where ARO is located, is positioned downwind from the prevailing wind direction — where winds blow from 90 percent of the time — and upwind from the main station, thereby reducing the site’s influence from human activities (view a map of all global monitoring stations to see just how remote it is). Also, there are no vehicles, foot travelers or flight landings permitted around the Observatory.
According to Morgan, the ozone ‘hole’ is not yet recovering, but remaining steady. It is expected to begin recovering in the next 10 to 20 years. ARO has started to see a decline in Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were banned by the Montreal Protocol in 1989. Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) — the replacement for CFCs — are less harmful to ozone, but will also be phased out over the next five years. Nick and his team launch ozonesondes once a week to monitor ozone levels, temperature, frost point and air pressure in the stratosphere. All data is sent digitally to the NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory/Global Monitoring Division in Boulder, Colorado. Research is currently being conducted on the relationship of the ozone ‘hole’ and the effects of changing air temperatures over Antarctica.
ARO also measures aerosols, which serve as cloud nuclei and thus have a large affect on incoming and outgoing radiation, playing an important role in climate and the Earth’s temperature regulation.
To learn more about the South Pole Atmospheric Research Observatory, visit http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/obop/spo/observatory.html. For ozone data and visuals, see http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/dv/spo_oz/.