Saturday, January 20, 2007

Introduction to work

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After three months travelling it struck me that I’m a third of the way through my BAS contract, and that you might be interested in what I’m actually doing down here! Globally important climate study is the short answer. The British Antarctic Survey produces the best quality data of all the countries operating on the continent with some sets running un-broken for over 50 years. These are Gucci numbers, and it’s my job to get them!

Halley base, named after the same astronomer as ‘Halley’s Comet’, primarily studies atmospheric science, although geological and glaciological work is also undertaken. Thanks to the recent ITV reports from our sister station at Rothera, pretty much everyone will have heard of our work. The two headline generators are ‘the hole in the ozone layer’ and ‘global warming’. The Hole was discovered by BAS scientists in 1985 and published to and accepted by the global academic community in less than two years. Governments immediately took note and the use of CFCs (hole-causing chemicals found in aerosols and refrigerators) was banned by the end of the decade. Politically, that’s fast. Data is also used by the academic community to develop global models of the Earth System in order to improve our total understanding of the planet.

In a typical day at work, I cover the meteorological side of this well publicised work. Based on the Simpson platform along with Kirsty, Tamsin and Andy, we monitor weather and ozone around the clock. Outside the platform are a number of masts holding advanced instruments to record meteorological parameters, but the weather is a fickle thing and we still have to add human-value by identifying cloud types and defining visibility and contrast. When all is working, it’s a routine job requiring an eye for detail. When it goes wrong, my engineering background is required to get the kit up and running as soon as possible.

One instrument that doesn’t go wrong is the Dobson Mass Spectrometer. This cast-iron device was first introduced in the Halley of 1955 and has successfully measured ozone density in the upper atmosphere ever since, adding significant credibility to BAS’s results. Ozone absorbs UV light, that’s why without it we get sunburnt. So by inverting that logical and measuring UV, we can derive ozone levels. The Dobson contains a number of prisms that select three pairs of UV light frequencies that ozone is known to absorb. These are typically measured every three hours and to start with I needed the practice, my Cambridge training coming back like the recollection of embarrassing dancing on a drunken night out.

More details coming soon…


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