High­est ob­ser­va­tory al­lows sci­en­tists to study pol­lu­tion

The Dominion Post - - World -

The snow ap­pears to be pris­tine on the An­dean peaks that loom above Bo­livia’s cap­i­tal, but even here ash and smog reach up to a re­mote plateau that is home to the world’s high­est at­mo­spheric ob­ser­va­tory.

It’s an ideal site for a team of in­ter­na­tional sci­en­tists who col­lect data on pol­lu­tion that has con­trib­uted to the rapid dis­ap­pear­ance of An­dean glaciers.

Re­search at the Cha­cal­taya sta­tion, which is lo­cated at 5240 me­tres (17,192 feet) above sea level, has a press­ing ur­gency: The re­treat of glaciers, which is com­pounded by global warm­ing, threat­ens the main source of fresh wa­ter for res­i­dents in the nearby cities of El Alto and La Paz – and the crops on which they rely.

‘‘If tem­per­a­tures con­tinue to rise, these high-alti­tude glaciers will also lose their mass of ice and there will only be snow on the sum­mit,’’ said glaciol­o­gist Pa­trick Ginot. ‘‘This will hap­pen all along the An­des.’’

Last year, Ginot was part of a team of sci­en­tists who trans­ported chunks of ice from a melt­ing Bo­li­vian glacier to Antarc­tica to be pre­served for pos­ter­ity and fu­ture study as part of a global project called Ice Mem­ory.

The Cha­cal­taya sta­tion is an im­por­tant place to col­lect data sam­ples partly be­cause of its own lo­ca­tion on the rem­nants of a glacier. The glacier, which is thought to be about 18,000 years old, once served as the site of Bo­livia’s only ski re­sort be­fore it melted a decade ago.

Ini­tially, the sta­tion was launched as a cos­mic ray ob­ser­va­tory in the mid-1940s, when just haul­ing up heavy sci­en­tific in­stru­ments on the back of lla­mas was a feat in it­self. But Cha­cal­taya’s alti­tude and lo­ca­tion near the Ama­zon re­gion – and its prox­im­ity to Bo­livia’s cap­i­tal city – even­tu­ally led sci­en­tists to ob­tain in­for­ma­tion about the pol­lu­tion re­leased from the burn­ing of forests, coal, oil and gas.

In 2012, the site be­came an at­mo­spheric sta­tion used to mea­sure green­house gases, re­ac­tive gases and par­ti­cles that can spread all the way to the Pa­cific Ocean hun­dreds of miles away. Its alti­tude is only ri­valled by a sta­tion re­cently built by China on the Quin­hai-Ti­bet plateau near Mt Ever­est which sits at 5200 me­tres.

Cha­cal­taya, which means ‘‘Cold Road’; in Ay­mara, is jointly funded and man­aged by groups from the United States and Europe, and the ini­tia­tive is led by Univer­si­dad Mayor de San An­dres in La Paz.

James But­ler, head of the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s global mon­i­tor­ing divi­sion, said the sam­ples taken and ob­ser­va­tions made in ‘‘are not in­flu­enced by lo­cal emis­sions or sim­i­lar in­flu­ences.

‘‘Up­ward look­ing ob­ser­va­tions from a moun­tain­top also pro­vide a much bet­ter pic­ture of changes in the strato­sphere than do ob­ser­va­tions from lower el­e­va­tions, be­cause in­ter­fer­ence in the sig­nal is greatly re­duced,’’ he said.

Fer­nando Ve­larde, a physi­cist at the ob­ser­va­tory, said the data was shared with the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

‘‘As sci­en­tists we take a prob­lem, study its ef­fects and try to give an­swers to so­ci­ety,’’ he said. ‘‘But the fi­nal de­ci­sions are in the hands of govern­ments and politi­cians.’’



An em­ployee walks next to an air col­lec­tor of the Cha­cal­taya at­mo­spheric ob­ser­va­tory, 5240m above sea level in the An­des moun­tains, near El Alto, Bo­livia.

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