Wednesday, 28 November 2018 11:25

Australia joins Antarctic climate research expedition

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ANSTO's Dr Andrew Smith on the ice in a previous Antarctic expedition ANSTO's Dr Andrew Smith on the ice in a previous Antarctic expedition

An international team of researchers based at Australia’s Casey Station in Antarctica is drilling into the icecap and undertaking climate research in the hunt for an elusive molecule that helps cleanse the atmosphere of greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting chemicals.

The molecule is the hydroxyl radical and it is often called "the detergent of the atmosphere". The expedition has departed from the Casey research station and travelled 125 km to Law Dome which rises to an elevation of 1400 metres on the Antarctic coast.

The expedition is a US-Australian collaborative project titled ‘Reconstructing Carbon-14 of Carbon Monoxide to Constrain Long-Term Atmospheric Hydroxyl Variability’, led by CSIRO atmospheric scientist Dr David Etheridge and University of Rochester scientist, Dr Vas Petrenko.

The expeditioners will be at the remote site, living in tents, for nearly three months, as they drill 250 metres into the ice. Ice cores from this depth contain air, trapped in bubbles, that dates from around 1850 AD.

The hydroxyl radical is a naturally occurring, highly reactive molecule that plays an important role in the atmosphere as a natural air purifier by destroying greenhouse gases and ozone depleting chemicals.

But, according to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, there is no knowledge of hydroxyl levels beyond the last five decades, leaving a huge gap in understanding.

ANSTO’s Dr Andrew Smith is part of the 10-member expedition team and said the aim of the expedition is to determine the earlier atmospheric history of the hydroxyl radical, back to around 1850 AD.

“This is an exciting collaboration, which has been four years in the planning and will provide important knowledge to better understand our warming planet,” he said.

“In order to study the hydroxyl radical beyond the instrumental record we must use naturally occurring radiocarbon.

“ANSTO’s Centre for Accelerator Science is one of the few laboratories in the world that can make these very challenging measurements.”

The scientists are travelling to Law Dome because it provides the special conditions needed for their research, and the very high snowfall traps air quickly and preserves it as bubbles in the ice for millennia.

After the ice cores are collected and melted, the liberated air will be shipped to the University of Rochester to separate the trace gases carbon monoxide and methane.

Once separated, the gases are converted to carbon dioxide which is sealed in glass tubes and delivered to ANSTO, and converted into graphite and measured for radiocarbon in ANSTO’s Centre for Accelerator Science.


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Peter Dinham

Peter Dinham - retired in 2020. He is a veteran journalist and corporate communications consultant. He has worked as a journalist in all forms of media – newspapers/magazines, radio, television, press agency and now, online – including with the Canberra Times, The Examiner (Tasmania), the ABC and AAP-Reuters. As a freelance journalist he also had articles published in Australian and overseas magazines. He worked in the corporate communications/public relations sector, in-house with an airline, and as a senior executive in Australia of the world’s largest communications consultancy, Burson-Marsteller. He also ran his own communications consultancy and was a co-founder in Australia of the global photographic agency, the Image Bank (now Getty Images).

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