Earth watch

Earth watch

Hot on the trail of the disappearing ozone
December 1, 2002

Peter Bernath is hot on the trail of the disappearing ozone.

But Bernath is not hunting down the missing ozone over Antarctica-the ozone "hole" that scientists have been warning about for years. Instead, he's concerned about a thinning of the protective ozone layer much closer to home, in the stratosphere over the globe's mid-latitudes. And that includes the area right above Canada's most populous province: Ontario.

The ozone depletion has Bernath and other scientists uneasy enough to start asking some serious questions. "It's great that (scientists) now understand why the Antarctic ozone hole is so big, but these smaller declines that happen in a sense are even more important," he says. "They affect things where we live. So there are a lot of unanswered questions about atmospheric science."

Despite all the investigation taking place in other parts of the globe, Bernath, a physical chemist at the University of Waterloo, says few resources so far have been devoted to solving the problem that hovers directly over our heads right here in Canada. "In the last 20 years, about six percent of the ozone over the mid-latitudes — Toronto, Ottawa — has actually gone away. That has nothing to do with the Antarctic or Arctic ozone hole," he says. "It's a bit of a mystery. Why is this happening?"

Thanks to some sophisticated equipment at the new Waterloo Atmospheric Observatory that Bernath heads up, and a satellite mission flown by the Canadian Space Agency, the team at the University of Waterloo will soon be able to collect the information they need to help answer these perplexing questions.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation is helping to finance the observatory and its acquisition of two Fourier Transform (FT) Spectrometers. These spectrometers will monitor changes in the earth's atmosphere, its composition, and chemistry. In April 2003, an FT Spectrometer will travel aboard the first Canadian science satellite launched in 30 years. During the two-year mission, known as ACE — Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment, the bread-box-sized spectrometer will take measurements of the atmosphere, the ozone layer, and its chemical composition.

A second FT Spectrometer, called WAO-1, will be based right here on Earth on top of the University of Waterloo's new Centre for Environmental Science and Information Technology building. From its high perch, WAO-1 will take the same kind of measurements as the satellite-based spectrometer. And when the satellite passes far overhead a few times a year, Bernath and his team will be able to compare the measurements taken from above and below.

"One of the big problems with satellite missions is wondering if what you're measuring is correct? If you get a value for ozone concentration, is that real? So a crucial part of the calibration and validation of the satellite instrument is measurement on the ground," says Bernath.

Working with ABB Bomem (Canada), the Quebec-based division of the giant aerospace company, Bernath and his colleagues will also use a third, portable, high-resolution spectrometer (called PARIS) to measure atmospheric components and pollutant compounds that are specific to particular locations. "This instrument will be the first portable, rugged instrument that you can take out into the field," says Bernath. "There's no other such instrument anywhere in the world."


By analyzing the composition of the Earth's atmosphere and the changes taking place in it, scientists at the University of Waterloo's Atmospheric Observatory hope to pinpoint exactly what chemicals are affecting the ozone layer.

The thin layer of ozone in the Earth's stratosphere absorbs the UV radiation that the sun emits. That layer protects people from the direct impact of harmful UV rays, which cause sunburn and can lead to deadly skin cancer in people exposed too often or for too long.

Peter Bernath and his colleagues at the University of Waterloo are also analyzing the chemical components of air pollution and smog. Using special spectrometers, including one that will be flown in the 2003 Canadian Space Agency satellite mission, they hope to determine the exact composition of atmospheric particulates that can, for example, contribute to smog.

"The big reason for the interest in understanding atmospheric chemistry is the effect on us as humans-both the health effects and the effects on the environment and ecosystems,'' says Bernath who holds the NSERC-Bomem-CSA-MSC* Industrial Research Chair in Fourier Transform Spectroscopy at the University of Waterloo.

Bernath points out that pollution-control measures taken by individual companies or imposed by governments are expensive. By identifying exactly which components are contributing to pollution, and what pollution levels are occurring, he says his research will be able to help policymakers and industry take the appropriate action. "If you're going to mandate that something be cleaned up and it's going to cost billions of dollars to do it, you had better be sure that the science is solid."

* Canadian Space Agency and Meteorological Service of Canada


One of the partners in the University of Waterloo's Atmospheric Observatory is the Canadian Space Agency. The Agency is funding the ACE satellite mission that will carry the instruments that observatory scientists will use to record measurements of the Earth's atmosphere.

The Canadian Space Agency supplied the engineering model used to perfect the FT Spectrometer, the instrument that will take atmospheric measurements from the satellite. That model is now being converted into a ground-based version of the satellite spectrometer (WAO-1) so that scientists at the observatory can compare measurements from the ground and from orbit.

Once the FT Spectrometer is in orbit, it may not behave exactly the way it did when it was tested on the ground, says Rejean Michaud, a Program Scientist with the Canadian Space Agency. The second, ground-based spectrometer will provide the Agency with an opportunity to validate the in-orbit data and confirm the accuracy of the information the satellite mission provides.

"The benefit for us is that it allows the scientists to better understand the measurements taken in space, because they have a replica for that instrument on the ground," says Michaud. Accurate data will ultimately provide policymakers with the solid science they need to take pollution control and ozone protection measures.

Quebec-based aerospace company ABB Bomem (Canada), the prime contractor building the spectrometers, is another important partner in the observatory's research. The technology involved in building these spectrometers-particularly the unique, portable version-has many commercial applications, says Marc Andre Soucy, Program Manager at ABB Bomem. "We want to use the core design of that instrument for a more commercial product, for ground-based applications in research laboratories and so on," he says.

For example, FT Spectrometers based on the Waterloo designs could be used in pharmaceutical applications, the control of food processes such as milk, and in the petroleum industry. Soucy says they also have the potential for specialized applications. Portable spectrometers could be used in subway systems to ensure good air quality and safety.

Edudata Canada has also established research partnerships with the UBC Centre for Health Services and Policy Research (CHSPR), the University of Western Ontario-based Canadian Language and Literature Research Network (CLLRNet), and the North Vancouver School District. Together with CHSPR, they're investigating how to link datasets from health and education for approved research projects.

The partnership with CLLRNet involves extending the knowledge capacity of the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Edudata is working with CLLRNet to build a user guide for existing and new network research. The guide will increase research information and data exchanges to improve and expand complementary language and literacy research.

The partnership with the North Vancouver School District involves implementing an education knowledge management plan for the school district. The system is designed to help school administrators and teachers make informed decisions so that effective educational services can be delivered efficiently.

Edudata has also put in place a technology partnership with IBM Canada. The IBM hardware work group presently consists of four workstations, a pair of servers, and a private Local Area Network. The workgroup provides network resources and services to authorized clients.