To Measure Climate Change, You First Need to Measure


From a very destructive fire for polar bears clinging to melting glaciers, there is no lack of scary images to show the need for action. global warming. But collecting reliable data to see how the change has changed — and helping to figure out how to deal with it — is much easier.

Scientists at National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, South West London, is using light-emitting diodes to measure environmental impacts and to assess how our planet is affecting the world more accurately than ever before.

The most recent laboratory tool is Boreas, a laser scanner designed to detect and analyze methane – a widely used air-conditioning system, from agriculture to combustible fuels. At the proud telecommunications platform in Heathfield, Surrey, Boreas works 24 hours a day in all seasons to test the air pressure. The machines use the length of a tube filled with fine plastic beads, which stand up to -160 degrees Celsius, allowing researchers to return to the NPL headquarters to separate small particles of methane from oxygen and nitrogen, which freeze at high temperatures.

The aim is to identify the total number of methane molecules and to better understand the source of the toxins, says Emmal Safi, a senior research scientist at the NPL. “Although previous instruments were able to measure the amount of methane, the data alone does not tell us much about where methane comes from,” he says.

Methane is a molecule made up of a single carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms (its chemical structure is CH4). There are, however, different types of methane in the atmosphere, called methane isotopologues. “Different methods make methane with very little difference in the amount of each isotopologue, so each component can be used as a signature to determine its source,” says Safi.

In the meantime, the statistics show researchers what to expect: “We are seeing methane with the northern hemisphere – the finest air from the Atlantic Ocean – as well as other agricultural areas,” says Chris Rennick, a high-ranking official. a research scientist on the Boreas team. “It depends on where the wind is going every day.”

What makes Borea unique is its potential: In the future, the NPL hopes to develop more such devices and ship them to various locations, including the Arctic, where more methane can be trapped in permafrost. “We are using data from our Heathfield lab to help compare methane emissions in the UK,” explains Rennick. “However, there are many other networks in many other countries that could also benefit from Boreas’ standards – this could allow a tool to help reduce methane emissions around the world.”

Boreas is one of several unique measuring instruments in the NPL. One of the most important in history is the Kibble Balance, a set of precise scales that were developed in the 1970’s to compare electrical and mechanical forces. Fifty years later, the device is used to measure small particles of air to determine the amount of methane.

An important role of researchers such as those working in Boreas is not to conduct climate research, however, or even to provide evidence of climate change. They are experts in metrology by trade – there to study and manage the science of measurement to keep science as accurate as possible.

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