Russell Schnell explains importance of monitoring Earth’s air

Schnell said that if countries set requirements to cut carbon dioxide emissions, NOAA’s observatories would serve as a kind of atmospheric fact checker.

Russell Schnell oversees atmospheric observatories for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. He says what humans put into the air has a big impact on our atmosphere.

Russell Schnell: There’s not much air. So we are affecting the atmosphere very dramatically. The atmosphere is extremely thin.

That is, compared with the size of the globe, the atmosphere is thin. Dr. Schnell went on to explain that five atmospheric observatories stretch across the Pacific region to monitor Earth’s air. They each take 300 to 400 different types of measurements, daily. It’s Schnell’s job to oversee these observatories, and he spoke about the one at Mauna Loa, Hawaii:

Russell Schnell: The air that comes there is well mixed, meaning that it doesn’t have any local pollution. So it’s kind of the background, the purest, the most stable air you can measure.

He said this stable background helps in monitoring the global changes happening in our atmosphere. For example, long-term data from the observatories show that carbon dioxide concentrations – now known to be responsible for driving climate change – are increasing. Schnell added that if countries set requirements to cut carbon dioxide emissions, these observatories would serve as a kind of atmospheric fact checker.

Russ Schnell: We will be able to, through our measurements, see if these are effective. We’ll be able to tell if in fact the U.S. is able to cut down CO2 production, if China is, or if they’re increasing.

Dr. Schnell explained that the atmospheric observatories he oversees provide baseline data. That means, their data can serve as a reliable comparison to data over other times, or places. He said that’s why it’s important that atmospheric measurements are extremely precise and consistent.

Russell Schnell: The idea of an observatory is that the measurements you made in 1960 should be exactly comparable to the ones you make in 2060. Over 100 years, you want to be sure that your measurements are not changing so that any changes you see are the atmosphere. We calibrate instruments constantly, sometimes two or three times a day. You calibrate it with standards, some of which are 50 years old. A lot of the work is making sure the equipment is working and putting out data that’s valuable, and valid, and will be valid for many, many years.

He said that collecting information about the atmosphere by measuring the contents of the air is like collecting information about people from the garbage they throw out.

Russell Schnell: If I went to your apartment every week and collected your garbage, and you didn’t know that I was collecting your garbage, I would take it to a warehouse and lay it all out and study it. I would get it next week, and then next week. After a period of about 2 or 3 years, I would know an awful lot about you and your health, your financial situation, and whatever, by looking at what you throw away. That’s what happens with cars. We drive, we throw CO2 and other gases out the tailpipe. We discard a refrigerator and the chemicals leak. Power plants put out materials all the time. All this stuff goes into the atmosphere. It doesn’t disappear. It goes mixing around. We look at that and study the changes and correlations between the changes. We start understanding where the atmosphere is changing, how it’s changing, and where the sources for these changes are.

Our thanks today to NOAA Pacific Services Center – linking culture, science, and people to build resilient Pacific Island communities.

Lindsay Patterson