To combat climate change, you must first measure it
From devastating wildfires to bald bears continuing to melt ice streams, there is no shortage of horrific images to show the need for action on climate change. But it's simpler to collect reliable data to monitor the rate of change - and to help deal with it.
Scientists at the physical laboratory in Teddington, south-west London, are using precision diagnostic equipment to measure pollutants and monitor our impact on the planet more accurately than it used to. never.
The Boreas laboratory's latest device is a laser spectrometer designed to collect and analyze methane - a greenhouse gas emitted by dozens of human activities, from agriculture to burning fuel. . At an unassuming telecommunication tower in Heathfield, Surrey, Boreas works 24 hours a day in all weathers to get a taste of plenty of air. The device uses a tubing length filled with fine plastic beads, which are then cooled to -160 degrees Celsius, allowing researchers back at NPL headquarters to separate the methane grains from oxygen and nitrogen, which freezes at much lower temperatures.
The goal is to determine the relative density of different methane molecules and gain a better understanding of where the pollutants come from, explains Emmal Safi, a senior research scientist at NPL. "Although previous devices have been able to measure methane density, these data alone do not tell us much about the source of methane," she says.
Methane is a molecule made up of a single carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms (the chemical formula is CH4). However, there are different types of methane in the air, called methane isotopologues. "Different processes produce methane with very small differences in the relative size of each isotopologue, so the relative proportion of each can be used as a signature to find out where it came from," arsa Safi.
So far, the readings show researchers what they were expecting: “We are seeing methane which has a name for the northern hemisphere background - relatively clean air from the Atlantic Ocean - and some local agricultural sources, ”says Chris Rennick, who is also a senior research scientist on the Boreas team. "It depends on the direction of the wind on a particular day."
What makes Boreas unique: In the future, NPL hopes to build more similar machines and send them to different regions, including the Arctic, where large quantities of methane could be found. locked in permafrost. "We use the data from our Heathfield laboratory to add estimates of UK methane emissions," explains Rennick. "However, there are many other networks in many other countries that would benefit from the measurements that Boreas can make - this would allow the instrument to help reduce global methane emissions."
Boreas is one of dozens of unique pieces of equipment measuring pollutants at NPL. One of the most historically important is the Kibble Balance, a set of high - precision blades developed in the 1970s to compare electric and mechanical power. Fifty years on, the device is used to measure individual air pressures to determine methane density.
The main responsibility of researchers such as those working on Boreas, however, is not to conduct climate research, or even to reveal evidence of climate change itself. They are metaphysics by trade - there to study and study measurement science to keep the science as accurate as possible.