Not such great gas: protecting Ireland from ammonia

Citizen scientists already monitor the weather for Met Éireann. Now many have a new job: measuring ammonia emissions

Nitrogen rich: spreading slurry. Photograph: Getty Images

Nitrogen rich: spreading slurry. Photograph: Getty Images

Sat, Nov 23, 2013, 01:00

It’s good to know that Ireland is not always in the EU’s environmental doghouse. Our national ceiling for ammonia emissions in the atmosphere is 116 kilotonnes a year. The last available figure, for 2011, was 108kt, well down on a peak of 121kt in 1998.

We don’t hear too much about emissions of ammonia – we are probably much more familiar with carbon emissions – though most of us will recognise its sharp, distinctive smell at high concentrations. But ammonia is, in the words of Brian Doyle, a researcher at University College Dublin who is conducting a new monitoring programme this year, a neglected pollutant.

Ammonia2, a joint project of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2013 Strive Programme and UCD’s school of agriculture and food science, is the biggest survey of our atmospheric ammonia since 2000. Most of the information is being gathered by “citizen scientists”, many of whom are also involved in Met Éireann’s remarkable data-collection network.

In this country, ammonia is mainly emitted from cattle, pig and poultry waste. It can shift its chemical shape in several ways once it is in the atmosphere; it is frequently eventually deposited on land as nitrogen.

We would surely know a lot more about ammonia if we were exposed to more of it. The worst consequences are visibly blasted vegetation and, in humans, eye and lung irritation and increased cardiovascular diseases. Irish emissions, at least for the moment, place us well outside that kind of nastiness.

Ammonia has subtler but very problematic effects, however. Nitrogen is essential to plant life, but artificial increases in soil will radically alter landscapes. On bogs, for example, with their colourful communities of diverse mosses, heathers and sedges would disappear under a monotone sea of nitrogen-needy grasses.

But as our emission figures are comfortably below the ceiling set by the EU, we don’t have to add ammonia to our list of environmental anxieties, do we? Maybe we do. The overall average figures may mask much higher concentrations of ammonia in agricultural areas.

A big pig or cattle farm can damage a nearby “protected” area. This may be especially true when animal waste is spread as slurry. And the Department of Agriculture’s Food Harvest 2020 plan envisages great increases in the numbers of cattle, pigs and poultry on our land. The Ammonia2 survey should give us a new batch of hard information about where we stand – and, with luck, provide guidance as to how we should monitor emissions in future.

There are 25 data-collecting stations, compared with 40 in 1999-2000. But they are, says Thomas Cummins, who is supervising the project for UCD, more efficiently focused on problem areas than previously.

There are very few now on the western seaboard. The volume of waste from sheep, it seems, just does not come close to that produced by cattle, pigs and poultry in the midlands, where the stations are much more concentrated.

Cummins says the natural areas most at risk from ammonia are the uplands of Wicklow, the Comeraghs and the Slieve Blooms. He cautions against complacency. “I can’t see atmospheric ammonia going anywhere but up, if cattle livestock numbers increase at the predicted rates,” he says.

But it does seem that new agricultural techniques, such as injecting slurry rather than spreading it, could curb livestock-emission rates in future. These increased efficiencies could benefit farmers economically, and the resultant reductions would obviously benefit the environment.

The project’s reliance on citizen scientists is admirable, but it also raises the question of whether reduced funding is forcing short cuts that may reduce the quality of information.

David Dodd, of the air-pollution unit at the EPA, is confident that this is not the case. “We can’t fund everything we would like to fund at the moment,” he says. “But we are tagging on to the excellent network of recorders established for over 50 years by Met Éireann.”

The equipment and methodology are “cheap and cheerful”, he says, but do the job. The project provides each recorder with a tube containing a pad that, when exposed outdoors, captures ammonia levels over a fortnight. Resealed by screw cap, it is then posted to UCD so it can be sent on to Canada for laboratory analysis. The first results should be available quite soon.

“This new equipment doesn’t take much looking after, just a few minutes every fortnight,” says Nora Power, who has recorded weather data for Met Éireann since 1983 in Dungarvan, Co Waterford.

She says her initial motive for volunteering was economic. There is a small allowance, and that was important, with six children and a seventh on the way. Today, with all her children grown up, she is happy to continue the work, and she is proud that she has never missed a day. (Family members take over when she is on holiday.)

She feels the work offers a “valuable service to the community”, and it has clearly become a passion for both Nora and her husband, Paddy, who did it before her. He still takes a keen interest, immediately recalling the precise date of an exceptional flash flood when we are talking on the phone.

One of her daughters now works in environmental education, and she has worked out from Nora’s data that average annual temperatures in Dungarvan have risen by a degree over 25 years.

The effectiveness of the Met Éireann network, and its adoption by Ammonia2, suggests that we could be using citizen scientists a lot more widely than we do: not just to save money but also to help us engage more directly with the world around us.

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