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New observatory is opened to monitor interactions between the atmosphere and the tropical oceans

09.01.2007
A new observatory to measure links between climate change and ocean-atmosphere interactions in the tropics is to be opened today, 9 January 2007.

The international observatory, located on the Cape Verde island of São Vicente in the tropical east Atlantic Ocean, began its working life in October 2006 and has already produced three months of atmospheric data. It is formally opened today by Madalena Brito Neves, the Cape Verdean Minister of Environment and Agriculture.

The new observatory will monitor and measure changes in the chemical, biological and physical composition of the tropical ocean and the air immediately above it, the marine boundary layer. Very few scientific studies have been carried out in this region - we know more about what is happening at the poles than in the tropics - so the observatory will help to fill a knowledge gap.

The observatory is funded through the Natural Environment Research Council's (NERC) Surface Ocean-Lower Atmosphere Study programme (UK SOLAS). Partner organisation Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences, (also known as IFM-Geomar), Kiel, in Germany, is providing additional funding and support through the EU Tropical Eastern North Atlantic Time-Series Observatory (TENATSO) project.

Dr Philip Newton, Deputy Science & Innovation Director at NERC, emphasised the scientific and societal importance of global monitoring networks. He said, "Twenty years ago, increases in carbon dioxide measured using long-term observations on Hawaii demonstrated that far-reaching changes in atmospheric composition, of the sort that are now driving national and international policies, were already underway. The new information provided by the Cape Verde observatory will greatly widen our window of knowledge, with benefits not only to Africa but also to the UK and the rest of the world."

Increased levels of methane, nitrous oxide and halocarbons together contribute nearly as much to global warming as carbon dioxide. But these gases survive for a much shorter time in the atmosphere and we need to know their removal rates as well as their concentration and production rates.

Tropical oceans cover about a third of the Earth's surface and the air immediately above them contains very high levels of the main atmospheric oxidant - the hydroxyl radical. These radicals act as a cleaning agent, breaking down greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. About 75% of methane removal is thought to occur in the tropics.

Dr Lucy Carpenter from the University of York, lead scientist for the project, said, " The tropical marine boundary layer acts as an engine room for the self-cleansing of the Earth's atmosphere, but we know little about what's going on there. These regions are also a 'net sink' for low-level ozone and many dangerous greenhouse gases; that is, where they are broken down, rather than created. The potential for atmospheric and oceanic change is large in this region, so the information we get from the observatory will be invaluable."

New ocean-based activities will start in the summer of 2007 with the installation of an 'ocean station' - a network of buoys and moored instruments - about 70 kilometres offshore. The station will monitor the temperature, salinity and nutrients in the sea-water, as well as levels of carbon and oxygen and the productivity of marine organisms such as phytoplankton (tiny floating plants). The tropical sea is one of the places where sea-surface temperatures are rapidly changing, lowering amounts of phytoplankton (which soak up large amounts of carbon dioxide), directly resulting in differing levels of trace gases present in the atmosphere.

Dr Carpenter and her colleague, Professor Alastair Lewis, also from York, have been the major drivers for the project in the UK. They are working closely with Professor Douglas Wallace from the Leibniz Institute.

Professor Wallace, who coordinates the TENATSO project, said " A recent study showed large decreases in the biological productivity of the tropical Atlantic, as measured by satellites. Major changes are going on in this region and it is therefore timely that we can now directly observe these changes both on the ground and at the sea-surface. Years of effort, by many groups including our Cape Verde partners, have gone into the planning of the observatory. It is very exciting for us to see the data start coming in."

The formal opening of the Cape Verde observatory marks the start of an international workshop on the study of ocean-atmosphere interactions in the tropics. Scientists from Europe, Africa and the United States will be discussing some of the key questions to be addressed by the long-term observations and data being obtained from the observatory.

More information:

Marion O'Sullivan, NERC press office, tel: +44 (0)1793 411727, mobile +44 (0)7917 086369, email: pressoffice@nerc.ac.uk

Atmospheric monitoring:
Dr Lucy Carpenter, University of York, tel: +44 (0)1904 434588, mobile +44 (0)7786 550553, email: ljc@york.ac.uk

Prof. Alastair Lewis, University of York, tel: +44 (0)1904 432522, mobile +44 (0)7766 006123, email: acl5@york.ac.uk

Ocean monitoring:
Mona Botros, Public Relations, Leibniz-Institut für Meereswissenschaften, Kiel, Germany, tel: +49 (0)431 600 2807; mbotros@ifm-geomar.de

Professor Douglas Wallace Leibniz Institut, tel: +49 (0)431 600 4200 ; dwallace@ifm-geomar.de

Notes for editors:

1. Some initial data from the observatory can be found at: www.york.ac.uk/capeverde

2. More information about the workshop can be obtained from either the NERC press office or from Dr Carpenter or Prof. Lewis at the University of York.

3. The Natural Environment Research Council funds world-class science, in universities and its own research centres, that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world. It is tackling the 21st century's major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and natural hazards. NERC leads in providing independent research and training in the environmental sciences. NERC's UK SOLAS programme aims to advance understanding of environmentally-important interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean, focusing on material exchanges which affect ocean productivity, climate and atmospheric composition.

www.nerc.ac.uk

3. The Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Kiel (IFM-Geomar) was founded January 1st, 2004 through the merger of the Institute for Marine Science (IfM) and the Research Center for Marine Geosciences (GEOMAR). The goal of the institute is the investigation of all areas relevant for actual research in marine sciences, ranging from Geology of the Ocean Floor to Marine Meteorology. The institute operates world-wide in all ocean basins. www.ifm-geomar.de

Marion O'Sullivan | NERC
Further information:
http://www.nerc.ac.uk
http://www.ifm-geomar.de
http://www.york.ac.uk/capeverde

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