A remote outpost on the rugged west coast of Ireland continues to play a key role in tracking climate change.
Researchers at Mace Head Atmospheric Research Station near Carna, Co Galway monitor global atmospheric air quality, climate variables and air pollution.
Dr Liz Coleman of the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway said: “In this remote location in the heart of Conamara, we’re making really advanced, cutting edge, scientific work and discoveries that underpin a lot of climate science.”
The South wind
Due to Ireland’s prevailing southwesterly wind, the air that blows over Conamara has travelled across the Atlantic Ocean.
“Owing to its position on the west coast, on the edge of the Atlantic, Mace Head is suitably positioned to measure the cleanest air in Europe. It really is the baseline for measuring air pollution for the northern hemisphere,” Dr Coleman explained.
It may be “the cleanest air in Europe” but the alarm bells are ringing at Mace Head.
The station has been measuring greenhouse gases since 1978 under the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE). AGAGE is part of the powerful global observing system that is measuring greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere.
“One of our long-term measurement data sets at Mace Head is CO2 and with CO2 we can look at the levels rising.
“At Mace Head we can see that not only are levels rising, it matches quite well to the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii which has a longstanding data set. And methane, like CO2, continues to rise here at Mace Head,” explained Dr Kirsten Fossum.
Measurements and international climate policy
Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, absorb radiation and are responsible for global warming.
The research from Mace Head underpins the climate science being discussed at the COP26 summit in Glasgow.
Gerry Spain, who has worked at the station for over 30 years, said: “There aren’t that many stations that would have the range of measurements that we do here. Just in my lab alone, I’m measuring about 90 compounds.
“We produce the measurements. Other scientists produce papers and models. That informs things like the IPCC reports, which then informs policy decisions.
“A bad measurement is a waste of time, but a good measurement lasts forever. And that’s almost like a philosophy here.”
Over the years, Mace Head has seen how effective international climate policy can have a positive impact on data.
“You can see one of the trends for one of the main compounds that we measure here. It’s chlorofluorocarbon – CFC12. And that was banned under the terms of the Montreal Protocol.
“From our measurements you can see the rise and then its fall. I think it’s the poster boy for international agreements. It really worked,” Gerry explained.
COP26 and hopes for the future
The researchers at Mace Head are closely following developments at COP26. At this remote outpost, it’s not just the air that’s clear. Their message to world leaders is too.
“We want to see continued investment in the science that furthers our understanding of the processes that affect our climate because these have such wide implications for society.
“Air pollution doesn’t know any boundaries, so the only way we can mitigate and fight for a cleaner environment and for a better atmosphere is by coming together internationally,” Dr Coleman said.
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- Eleanor Mannion, “Tracking climate change with ‘cleanest air in Europe”, on RTE, November 2021 (https://www.rte.ie/news/2021/1103/1257663-tracking-climate-change/)