From devastating wildfires to polar bears clinging to melting ice floes, there’s no shortage of shocking images to illustrate the need for action on climate change.
From devastating wildfires to polar bears clinging to melting ice floes, there’s no shortage of shocking images to illustrate the need for action on climate change. But collecting reliable data to track the rate of change—and help determine how to tackle it — is much less straightforward.
Scientists at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, South West London, are using precise monitoring equipment to measure pollutants and track our impact on the planet more accurately than ever before.
The lab's latest tool is Boreas, 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 telecommunications tower in Heathfield, Surrey, Boreas works 24 hours a day in all weather conditions to sample large volumes of air. The machine uses a length of tubing filled with fine plastic beads, which is then cooled to -160 degrees Celsius, allowing researchers back at NPL headquarters to cryogenically separate the methane particles from oxygen and nitrogen, which freeze at much lower temperatures.
The aim is to determine the relative concentration of different methane molecules and gain a better understanding of where the pollutants are coming from, explains Emmal Safi, a higher research scientist at NPL. “While previous devices have been able to measure methane concentrations, that data alone doesn’t tell us much about what the source of methane is,” she says.
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