The Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment celebrates a milestone anniversary, solves a chlorofluorocarbon mystery, and fills an atmospheric data gap in equatorial Africa.
BY KATE S. PETERSEN I EAPS NEWS
"You have literally changed the world," said Susan Solomon, Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in MIT's EAPS, addressing attendees of the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE) 40th anniversary conference held at MIT in 2018.
AGAGE, an international network of scientists, research institutions, and advanced instrumentation has been providing continuous global greenhouse and ozone-depleting gas detection via an expanding infrastructure of state-of-the-art monitoring stations since 1978.
As the conference's keynote speaker, Solomon recounted how AGAGE data on the long atmospheric lifetimes of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) informed her research —most notably, her discovery identifying the chemical mechanism behind the formation of the Antarctic ozone hole. This research led to the global ban of CFCs through the Montreal Protocol and subsequent healing of the ozone hole—a posterchild of climate success.
Ronald Prinn, director of MIT's Center for Global Change Science and TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science in EAPS, co-founded AGAGE amid growing concerns about the effects of industrial chemical emissions on the atmosphere, and has led the network from its 1978 inception. The project, which began as the Atmospheric Lifetime Experiment (ALE) and Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (GAGE), merged theory with experimental research, and now boasts 13 primary stations with sophisticated instruments measuring over 50 gases, 20-40 times per day, with sources and sinks inferred using high-resolution 3-D models and supercomputers. Today, AGAGE data is often combined with NOAA surface data, and NASA and NOAA aircraft and satellite data, yielding a more comprehensive picture of atmospheric gases, and has allowed for major advancements in atmospheric science and global emissions policy.
Acknowledging AGAGE's international position with access to new data, conference attendees discussed the network's evolution, impacts, and bright future.
"Our network is unique in that it provides estimates of global, national and city emissions of greenhouse and ozone depleting gases," said Paul Fraser, AGAGE Cape Grim station scientist and an atmospheric chemist who established the network's first Southern Hemisphere measurements of CFCs in the late-1970s. "It allows us to say, yes, we have emissions problems, and this is where they're coming from. And that enables us to then specifically identify industries that might be involved and to help them in their efforts to reduce these emissions."
That capability can be critical to ensure compliance with international environmental agreements such as the Montreal Protocol, said Ray Weiss, AGAGE experimental leader and a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA. "The only way to make sure [environmental policies] are working is to quantify what's actually going into the atmosphere, whether it's gases that affect climate or the ozone layer," Weiss said. "The important thing is to keep doing it. It's not exciting, but it has to be done independently."
His point was well-illustrated when AGAGE scientists discovered the precise source of mysterious new emissions beginning around 2012 of CFC-II, one of the worst ozone-depleting substances banned by the Montreal Protocol. According to Prinn, two AGAGE stations in South Korea and Japan, together with high-level modeling, were the keys to this discovery.
To identify the exact source, AGAGE scientists, including Prinn group researchers, created computer simulations that could back-track the emissions' trajectory based on known global atmospheric circulation patterns. They were able to pinpoint the new emissions to a handful of industrial areas in eastern China. The discovery, published in Nature earlier this year, represented "an important and particularly policy-relevant milestone in atmospheric scientists' ability to tell which regions are emitting ozone-depleting substances, greenhouse gases, or other chemicals, and in what quantities," commented Weiss.
While the international collaborators confirmed the source of a substantial fraction of the newly detected CFC-II emissions, they couldn't account for all of them. This means that there are likely other industrial sites in violation of the Montreal Protocol either in other parts of east Asia or elsewhere. "The AGAGE network does not yet have the geographical distribution required to monitor emissions from all industrialized areas," said Prinn.
The network's latest addition came in early 2019 thanks to collaboration between EAPS scientists and the Rwandan government. Discussions of the Rwanda Climate Observatory began in 2008 when Rwanda's then-president, Paul Kagame, visited MIT. Prinn notes that Kagame hoped to create world-class scientific infrastructure in Rwanda to provide domestic opportunities for talented and accomplished young Rwandan scientists, who would often otherwise leave the country for prestigious jobs elsewhere. It seemed to Prinn like a perfect location for a new AGAGE station, the first on the African continent.
Derek Cunnold, Hillel Magid (local Barbados Station technician), Ronald prinn, and Fred Alyea during a site visit to the early Ragged Point, Barbados station. Part of the original GAGE project, the observatory has been in operation since July 1978.
While scouting for a location for the new station, Prinn's then graduate student, Katherine Potter PhD 'II, met Jimmy Gasore from the National University of Rwanda, who soon joined Prinn's group to build the new Rwandan observatory and obtain his PhD in 2017. For his thesis, Gasore collected data from the fledgling station, and through computer analysis, estimated carbon dioxide and methane sources and sinks in Africa, a part of the world severely lacking in greenhouse gas observations. This provided a novel baseline for global scientists and regional policy makers. With his MIT PhD, Gasore returned to Rwanda as Chief Scientist of the new observatory in 2018.
But AGAGE's planned expansion will not end with Rwanda noted Prinn, as increased monitoring of climate-changing and ozone-depleting gases becomes more crucial with climate change. Additional measurements are needed to improve understanding of global and regional trends in greenhouse gas emissions, and to help verify national and regional compliance to the Montreal Protocol and climate action pledges made in the Paris Agreement. Future sites of interest include Brazil, India, and Germany.
Story Image: Chief Scientist Jimmy Gasore PhD '17 gives a tour of the Rwanda Climate Observatory to scientists from East Africa and the European Union. This newest AGAGE site on Mt. Mugogo is a collaboration beween the government of Rwanda and MIT, staffed by Rwandan researchers. (Credit: Photos courtesy Jimmy Gasore)
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