Climate Change, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: New Observatory Measures Ozone Layer

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jul 11 2005 (IPS) - An observatory to measure the thinning of the ozone layer, the first of its kind in Latin America, has begun to operate in southern Argentina.

"The idea was to test the equipment to begin working regularly as of Aug. 15, but this week we are already obtaining our first results," Eduardo Quel, the director of Argentina’s Laser and Applications Research Centre (CEILAP), told IPS last week.

The Argentine researcher, who is heading the project, explained that the observatory would provide readings that are more precise than those of a moving satellite.

The laboratory was set up in late June at the military air base located 15 km from Río Gallegos, the capital of the province of Santa Cruz, in the southern region of Patagonia.

During the southern hemisphere springtime, which begins in September, Patagonia is especially exposed to the harmful ultraviolet rays that are normally blocked by the ozone layer, which is thin in that region.

"We chose Río Gallegos because after carrying out a study with the meteorology service we agreed that this is the spot with the clearest nights, that permit the best observation," said Quel.

The air base provides housing and other support to the members of the scientific team.

The ozone layer is within the stratosphere, which extends from 15 to 35 km above the earth’s surface. Stratospheric ozone protects the biosphere from potentially damaging doses of ultraviolet-B radiation (UV-B). The thinning of the ozone layer poses a threat to flora and fauna, and among human beings causes health problems such as a higher incidence of skin cancer and eye ailments.

In the 1970s, scientific researchers discovered that the ozone layer was thinning out at certain times of the year in specific areas, especially over the South Pole, and that this "hole" was caused by gases like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in aerosols and refrigerants, which break down ozone.

The harmful emissions began to be regulated in 1987 under the Montreal Protocol, which set legally binding targets and timetables for the elimination and replacement of ozone-depleting substances.

But the thinning of the ozone layer will not begin to be controlled until the middle of this century, Argentine expert Ruben Piacentini, with the University of Rosario Physics Institute, told IPS.

"The situation in this part of the planet is complex, because although measurements today show that the ozone readings have become stable over the past few years with a possible tendency towards recovery, things could get worse again if the standards that have been set are not lived up to and if the harmful gases and substances are not replaced," he warned.

There are still difficulties in finding an effective substitute for methyl bromide, a highly toxic and ozone-depleting pesticide that is supposed to be completely eliminated by 2015, under the Montreal Protocol.

The observatory project in Argentina began as a simple laboratory that operated since 1998 in CEILAP, the research centre headed by Quel on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

The laboratory’s success made it possible to obtain aid from Japan’s International Cooperation Agency to develop even more precise equipment and transfer it to southern Argentina, where visibility is better.

The observatory will measure the thickness of the ozone layer every day from now to 2007, when the financing from Japan runs out. After that, the project could continue with backing from government offices that support scientific and technological research and development.

Quel explained that from the military base, ozone particles are measured by laser, and the information is captured on earth through mirrors connected to fibre optic cables that transfer it to a computer.

The data collected is more precise than the readings taken by the Aura satellite launched by the U.S. space agency NASA last year, although the information obtained through the two channels will be complementary.

The data will go to the international Network for the Detection of Stratospheric Change which gathers ozone measurements from similar stations operating in Antarctica and in northern hemisphere countries, said Quel.

The laboratory will also collect data that sheds more light on the greenhouse effect or the trapping of the sun’s heat in the atmosphere – a phenomenon that has worsened over the past 200 years due to industrial pollution.

The station will also measure the composition of air pollutants, natural aerosols like sand, dust or sea salt, and substances emitted as a result of human activity.

 
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