To deal with climate change, first you need to measure it

From devastating wildfire For polar bears clutching the melting ice floes, there is no shortage of shocking pictures to illustrate the need for action climate changeBut collecting reliable data to track the speed of change—and help determine how to resolve it—is not that simple.

Scientist at National Physics Laboratory In Teddington, southwest London, they are using precise monitoring equipment to measure pollutants and track our impact on the planet more accurately than ever before.

The laboratory’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. In a humble telecommunications tower in Heathfield, Surrey, Boreas works 24 hours a day in all weather conditions to sample large amounts of air. The machine uses a section of tube filled with fine plastic beads and then cools it to -160 degrees Celsius, allowing the researchers to return to the NPL headquarters to separate methane particles from oxygen and nitrogen at a low temperature. The oxygen and nitrogen freeze at a much lower temperature. .

Emmal Safi, a senior research scientist at NPL, explained that the goal is to determine the relative concentration of different methane molecules and to better understand the source of pollutants. “Although previous equipment can measure methane concentration, these data alone cannot tell us much about the source of methane,” she said.

Methane is a molecule composed of carbon atoms surrounded by four hydrogen atoms (its chemical formula is CH4). However, there are different types of methane in the air, called methane isotopes. “Different processes produce methane, and the relative amount of each isotope has very little difference, so the relative proportion of each isotope can be used as a feature to determine its source,” Safi said.

So far, the readings have shown the researchers what they expected: “We have seen methane characteristic of the northern hemisphere — relatively clean air from the Atlantic Ocean — and some local agricultural sources,” said Chris Lennick. He is also a research scientist in the higher Boreas team. “It depends on the direction of the wind on any day.”

What makes Boreas unique is its potential: In the future, NPL hopes to build more similar devices and deploy them to different regions, including the Arctic, where there may be a lot of methane in the permafrost. “We are using data from the Heathfield Laboratory to estimate methane emissions in the UK,” Rennick explained. “However, many other networks in many other countries will also benefit from the measurements that Boreas can make-this will allow this instrument to help reduce global methane emissions.”

Boreas is one of dozens of unique devices that NPL uses to measure pollutants. One of the most historically significant is Kibble Balance, a set of high-precision balances developed in the 1970s to compare electrical and mechanical power. Fifty years later, the device was used to weigh individual air particles to determine the methane concentration.

However, the key role of researchers, such as those working in Boreas, is not to conduct climate research or even to provide evidence of climate change itself. They are trade metrologists-where they study and monitor the science of measurement to keep the science as accurate as possible.

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