Irish climate change observatory faces uncertain future

Data gathered at station in Connemara underpins science at climate change summit

With eyes firmly on the climate change talks in Paris, Irish school children from Sooey National School and Belmullet Senior National School explain what it means to them

 

While Ireland pledges to back a binding global agreement on reducing carbon emissions at the COP21 summit, a Connemara observatory which plays a key international role in monitoring climate change is facing an uncertain future.

Lack of long-term funding for the Mace Head atmospheric research station is forcing reliance on goodwill to provide data underpinning the science at COP21.

Currently it has less than one full-time technician from NUI Galway (NUIG), and relies on PhD students and transient researchers to fulfil an escalating body of work.

Critics say it falls between funding models due to a State policy which demands commercial job generation at the expense of basic research.

The 56-year-old observatory, perched on the edge of the Atlantic, is one of a network of eight such “super-sites” in Europe ranging from the Alps to north Finland.

However, Mace Head’s isolation means it measures some of the continent’s cleanest air.

Regarded as one of the most sophisticated facilities of its kind in the world, it provides climate and air pollution data in “real time” every 10 minutes, and its information on volcanic eruptions like that of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 has been crucial to safe air travel.

The work of its scientists – among the world’s most influential – is published regularly in journals lsuch as Nature.

As Prof Colin O’Dowd and Prof Andy Shearer of NUIG’s school of physics explain, the pressure on Mace Head to fulfil research contracts has escalated in recent years.

Instrumentation

The Environmental Protection Agency, European Space Agency, Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Aviation Authority and the British department of environment, food and rural affairs are among research customers

“The Mace Head atmospheric research station is at the forefront of understanding global climate change,” Prof O’Dowd says.

Few if any were talking about climate change when university physicist Dr Tom O’Connor discovered the location during a cycle around Connemara in search of an exposed site with minimal human influence.

The headland’s abandoned coast watch station – used to watch out for second World War submarines – was ideal, lying right in the path of mid-latitude cyclones traversing the north Atlantic.

In 1986 it was selected as the site for major international projects, and it has been a baseline station for a UN agency, the Global Atmosphere Watch of the World Meteorological Organisation, since 1994.

Scientists from more than 100 universities and institutions in 20 countries have drawn on the resource for national and international projects.

A review by Norwegian and Swedish scientists two years ago described its sustainability as “wafer thin due to a very small number of experienced staff on soft-money contracts of variable duration” or no contracts at all.

“A core number of experienced staff need to be employed in a more robust and secure framework,” it said, recommending employment of at least two full-time technicians.

Even an allocation of €100,000 a year could make an enormous difference if part of a guaranteed operational budget, the NUIG scientists say.

Not be drawn

It said that both it and the EPA “recognise the global regional and local importance of Mace Head” and had provided long-term support through funding “research projects and scientific support for activities”.

“We look forward to the further strategic development of the site by NUIG which will ensure that it can continue to work at the cutting edge of atmospheric research,” the department said.