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Tasmanian air lab a world leader in pollution research
14/03/2012 - In a small timber building snuggled into Tasmania's northwestern tip, scientists examine the cleanest air in the world to see how dirty it is. Mike Hedge
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The Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station is a maze of pipes, wiring, cylinders and sophisticated electronic gadgetry that it is hoped will help solve the greatest threat the planet faces: its increasingly putrid atmosphere.
Operated by the Bureau of Meteorology, the Cape Grim station came into being thanks to a band of young CSIRO scientists who set up a caravan full of instruments there in 1976.
They looked all over Tasmania because they knew the air around the island was particularly clean and picked Cape Grim largely because it was commonwealth land, which meant they wouldn't have to pay for it.
As it turned out, the location named by Captain Matthew Flinders for its foreboding black cliffs, is the best they could have chosen.
"We didn't realise what a fantastic site it was when we took the caravan up there," said Dr Paul Fraser, one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the station.
The work done at the Cape Grim baseline air pollution station provides the key to measuring the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere of the southern hemisphere, and, in turn, the world.
It is largely from the study of the air collected at Cape Grim that scientists from the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) have compiled Australia's second State of the Climate report being released on Wednesday.
The Cape Grim station is regarded as a world leader for two reasons: it is almost always windy, and it is in a perfect location.
"This is the premier site in the world," said the station's officer in charge Sam Cleland.
"It's just perfect.
"This was the air we wanted to look at."
During the 35 years since the caravan arrived on the headland where Bass Strait meets the Southern Ocean, BoM and CSIRO scientists have used the information gathered there to make a significant contribution to the global understanding of the composition of the air we breathe.
"Climate change has been a topic of discussion in the scientific community since the 1930s," Dr Fraser said.
"It's not some new science.
"And thanks to some far-sighted people we have the most important baseline station in the southern hemisphere and one of the most significant in the world."
The reason, according to Dr Fraser, is "our footprint is so large".
When the Roaring Forties winds sweep over Cape Grim, which they do a lot, the air that passes over the station has spent a week or so above the Southern Ocean.
That air is captured in inlets around the station and piped inside, where it is analysed and samples are stored in an "air archive".
Some 120 capsules are kept in the archive by the CSIRO in Melbourne so that in the future it will be possible to know what the air quality was like in the past.
"It's only since the 1950s that we have data of sufficient quality to know what's been going on," said Cleland.
"But we need to know more."
As uncomfortable as that may be.
Source: AAP NewsWire
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