Monday, August 25, 2008

Training to be a scientist...





Even though I'm an engineer in my daily job, I've never used the equipment that I'll be responsible for once I get down to Palmer. So, for the last couple of weeks I've been training for my job.

First I flew San Diego to learn how to monitor the hole in the ozone layer. Think of the ozone layer as the earth's sunglasses, protecting life on the surface from the sun's strongest ultraviolet rays, which can cause serious problems such as skin cancer and DNA degeneration. In the 1980s is was noticed that human-generated compounds, primarily the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) then used in air conditioners and aerosol and were destroying this layer. At that time, ozone thinning was occuring on a seasonal basis over the whole planet. In 1985 the Montreal Protocol outlawed the further use of the CFC chemicals. In the 20 years since then, the ozone layer has significantly recovered over most of the planet. The exception, so far at least, is over the tip of South America, Australia, New Zealand and Antartica. Over these areas, the ozone hole has remained large with the largest size hole measured in 2000. Who does the missing ozone effect ? Well, almost every species on the food chain.

In plants, as in animals, higher levels of ultraviolet radiation causes DNA damage. A study of plants atTierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America, found DNA damage to plants on days the ozone hole was overhead to be 65% higher than on non-ozone-hole days (Rousseaux et. al., 1999). The effects of increased ultraviolet light on marine life is also thought to be harmful, however studies of the direct effect on shrimp, krill and fish are difficult to carry out. The ozone hole lasts for about 10-12 weeks each year and the probable effect is decreased reproductive capacity and larval development during that time. One study (Smith et. al., 1990) calculates the ozone effect to be responsible for a 2-4% annual decrease in phytoplankton population.

The effects on the human population are significantly easier to measure. In Punta Arenas, Chile, the southernmost city in the world (53°S), with a population of 154,000, skin cancer has risen dramatically. Cases increased 66% from 1994-2000 compared to 1987-1993. This corresponds exactly with the increased ultraviolet radiation levels seem each spring for the past 20 years, when the Antarctic ozone hole has moved over the city. It is exactly this increase in ultraviolet radiation that I'll be measuring once I get to Palmer. And when I do, I'll be heeding the lesson of Punta Arenas and wearing my sunglasses and sunblock !

In the meantime, if you want to monitor the ozone layer for yourself, you can view satellite images at:

http://ozonewatch.gsfc.nasa.gov/index.html

Two good sites for learning more are at:
http://www.wunderground.com/education/holefaq.asp
and
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/05/060527093645.htm


After learning about the ozone hole, I went on a visit that I really enjoyed to the offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado. At NOAA I learned how to take very precise air samples for the global greenhouse gases network. This is the network, started by Professor Keeling of Scripps Institute in 1958, which identified the trend and cause of global warming. Taking samples of the air in Antarctica is ideal because of its remoteness from cars, people and cities. Trace gases such as carbon dioxide mesured in Antarctica give us a good understanding of their global concentrations.

The website of air sampling network at NOAA describes more about the project and is a great starting point if you want to learn more:

http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/flask.html

That's all for now. I'll keep you posted as I get closer to deployment.

4 comments:

Carmina said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.