Scientists launch largest study of air’s ‘self cleansing’ ability

British and Australian scientists are co-operating in a a major international project called the Southern Ocean Atmospheric Photochemistry Experiment, to study the atmosphere's ability to destroy pollutants naturally.

Air contains naturally occurring chemicals called hydroxyl radicals that react with, and destroy, a range of pollutants and natural compounds.

“If levels of hydroxyl radicals are changing, one consequence may be increasing concentrations of ozone gas in the lower atmosphere,” says Professor Stuart Penkett, from the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia in the UK. Professor Penkett is a project leader for the experiment.

Ozone near the ground is both a greenhouse gas and an irritant that attacks the throat and lungs and irritates the eyes.

“A change in ozone and hydroxyl radical concentrations in the lower atmosphere would certainly affect stability of the world’s climate,” says Penkett.

“Our Experiment is giving us a present-day baseline in the cleanest air present in the atmosphere against which we can check future changes. We will also use our results as a comparison for similar studies in the more polluted northern hemisphere,” says Professor Penkett.

The Experiment involves approximately 50 scientists and engineers, PhD students and technical staff from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Atmospheric Research and CSIRO Marine Research, from the Bureau of Meteorology, and from the three British universities who are funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council.

The Southern Ocean Atmospheric Photochemistry Experiment is one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever conducted into the chemistry of the lower atmosphere. It is part of a major international effort being made to understand more about the chemistry of our atmosphere and its impact on climate.

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