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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 01/27/2010

Ann and Antarctica: How's the air down there?

By Ann Posegate

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The Atmospheric Research Observatory at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Photo by Ann Posegate, courtesy of National Environmental Education Foundation.

During my visit to the South Pole (see previous posts from my trip here), I had a chance to sit down with Nick Morgan, station chief at the South Pole Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), operated by the National Science Foundation and one of five climate Baseline Observatories in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Global Monitoring Division. Here's what he had to say about monitoring the air over the South Pole.

Can you explain what goes on at ARO? What are some of the observatory's recent findings?

Basically, what we're doing at ARO is getting baseline levels of the atmosphere, whether it's greenhouse gases, ozone levels, solar radiation, aerosols or other things.

Keep reading for the rest of the interview ...


Nick Morgan, ARO station chief. Photo by Ann Posegate, courtesy of National Environmental Education Foundation.

We're seeing trends such as CO2 [carbon dioxide] rising at a steady rate. The ozone 'hole' is not recovering yet; it's been remaining somewhat steady. But CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] have actually gone down. So, we're starting to see a decline in CFCs and we're expecting the ozone 'hole' to recover soon after, within the next 10 to 20 years. The replacement -- HCFCs [hydrochlorofluorocarbons] -- are a lot less harmful to ozone than CFCs. Eventually, the Montreal Protocol is supposed to be phasing those out, and hopefully the replacement will be even less destructive to ozone.

What are some of the other things you measure?

We measure multiple greenhouse gases along with CO2, such as methane ... And, then, the aerosols, which are basically anything that water will condense on. These are particles in the air, of a certain size range, that water likes to form cloud droplets onto. We're measuring those because they have a large effect on incoming and outgoing radiation ... So, all of these things that drive climate, we're trying to break them down into simple processes. For example, solar radiation -- there are different ways that solar radiation can reach the Earth. It can be just direct solar radiation or it can be reflected off of particles in the atmosphere and then find the Earth. It can also hit the Earth and reflect off and not even be absorbed at all. We're trying to get baseline levels [of these parameters] and break them down into parts so we can better know what's going on.

I've heard from some studies that temperatures in the stratosphere are slightly cooling. How are these temperatures measured here?

We launch ozonesondes once a week. During the time of the season when the ozone 'hole' forms [strongest from September through December], we launch them two or three times a week to get a better resolution in the data. When we launch an ozonesonde, it measures ozone, frost point, temperature and pressure. That gets sent back down here through a radio signal, and we record it and send the information digitally to Boulder.

The South Pole is known for having the cleanest air on Earth. Can you explain why that is?

... We have the cleanest air down here due to very, very little human influence, and we're very isolated from exposed land, so we're not going to get a lot of dust blowing around ... We have a Clean Air Sector, which extends from grid 340 to grid 110 [grid east-northeast], and the winds are out of that sector about 90 to 95 percent of the time. So that way, the Station here is downwind from all of the things we are trying to measure. Basically, for thousands of miles, there is nothing out there to pollute the air.

So these are some of the most accurate measurements in the world?

... They're accurate at measuring what they're measuring in other places. But down here, we're getting a good baseline level. By the time air gets down here, it's so well mixed that we're getting a really good average of what the Earth's air is like. We're not near a factory that is causing a big spike in our data. Our observatory is one of NOAA's Baseline Observatories, so that's what we're all trying to do -- get the average amounts throughout the world.

How long have you been observing CO2 at the South Pole site? Have there been any CO2 trends here?

We've been observing CO2 at the South Pole for a little over 50 years. It was started during the International Geophysical Year, which was in '57. It was started by Scripps Oceanographic Institute -- Keeling was the pioneer in measuring CO2. NOAA joined in during the 70's ... So, we have two dual projects going on. We do measurements on the same day so we can compare data.

What we're seeing is a pretty steady rise in CO2 every year. In other places, you'll see a lot of variation due to the seasons -- when you have leaves out, they'll absorb a lot of CO2. In the Northern Hemisphere, there's a lot of land and a lot of forests, so you have a lot of up-and-down variation of CO2 throughout the year, annually. And down here, it's much more smoothed out ... just because there's no vegetation down here to uptake CO2. Again, we get a good baseline level of CO2 -- how the world is doing.

What is your background, and why did you become interested in working in Antarctica?

I went to college and studied atmospheric science. Then, I joined the NOAA Corps, which is a uniformed service that supports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Our primary purpose is navigating their research vessels and aircraft, and we rotate between positions. I just came from my sea tour and was looking for a short assignment. There are not a lot of weather positions in NOAA Corps, so this was more along the lines of my experience in college. And just for the experience of coming down here ... How many chances do you get to come to the South Pole, and especially winter over? I've heard that only 1,400 people have wintered over down here.

For more information:

South Pole Atmospheric Research Observatory
NOAA Global Monitoring Division research areas
South Pole ozone hole data
Climate Fact: The ozone hole and climate
Carbon cycle science explained
Aerosols and climate change
South Pole webcam: live from ARO

By Ann Posegate  | January 27, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  International Weather, Posegate  
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Comments

A pretty steady rise in CO2 each year since IGY...sounds to me an awful lot like Al Gore's global warming hypothesis.

Wonder how Mr. Q reacts to this one...!

Speaking of IGY, shouldn't we consider holding more International Geophysical Years at regular intervals...say every fifteen or twenty years? We have vastly improved remote sensing technology, and the setup, particularly in space, is a great advancement over 1957. Back then, at the dawn of the Space Age there were only Sputnik, Explorer, TIROS and a few other satellites. Today we have the International Space Station, plus continuous satellite monitoring. It's a shame we're ending the Space Shuttle flights two or three years before the new Ares/Orion system even gets off the ground. We should either continue the shuttle flights for the next few years till the new system is operational, or work with the Russians and perhaps also the Chinese, Europeans and other nations on a truly international launch protocol. Another advantage for future IGY's is that there is no longer a Cold War to hinder international scientific cooperation.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | January 27, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Bombo47jea wrote, "A pretty steady rise in CO2 each year since IGY...sounds to me an awful lot like Al Gore's global warming hypothesis.

Wonder how Mr. Q reacts to this one...!"

This is absolutely beyond maddening. When have I ever asserted that CO2 is not rising? I don't recall doing that.

What I dispute is that our current level of knowledge is anywhere close enough to make even an educated guess about what our climate will be in 100 years. How many times must I reiterate that?

Did you know that an IPCC scientist has admitted lying so that he might goad the politicians into acting? If that surprises you, then you haven't been paying attention.

Did you know that NASA had taken that IPCC lie, exaggerated it further, and posted it on their web site? Did you know that they quietly purged the lie without any public notice?

Did you know that the IPCC lied with their Amazon rain forest claims?

I could go on all day. But it won't make a bit of difference to some of you. Will it?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | January 27, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Bombo47jea, how about all of these IPCC AR4 assertions which came from non-peer reviewed bogus claims?

Won't matter to you, will it?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | January 27, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

And just for the record (yet again!), I have advocated phasing out all of our existing coal fired power plants and replacing them with nuclear powered plants. And that would do more to reduce the United States CO2 output than anything else advocated by ANYONE at this blog!!

So even though I am certain that the hypothesis of catastrophic man made global warming is a complete and total scam, I have advocated doing more to reduce U.S. CO2 output than anyone else here! How is that for irony?

Name one person at this blog who has proposed anything (with a link to it) that would do more to reduce U.S. CO2 output than what I have advocated.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | January 27, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

@Bombo47jea - IGY did indeed result in progress for polar and space exploration. While there hasn't been another IGY since the first, the International Polar Year 2007-08 also brought a lot of resources to polar research and education, minus Cold War-era competition. Perhaps NASA should hold something similar.

From what I have seen and learned, the Antarctic Treaty is also a great example of international cooperation for science's sake.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | January 28, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Ann and Bombo47jea,

The IGY isn't the only example of scientists reaching across international lines and cooperating. Oh no!

Scientists hid climate data

Here's to hoping that those scientists are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and spend some quality time in prison.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | January 28, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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