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Scientists seeing improved air quality in this 'extremely unusual time'

Findings from Environment Canada’s Centre for Atmospheric Research Experiments in Egbert contribute to understanding of how pandemic has impacted the air we breathe

Lying in a relatively remote area in the countryside between Cookstown and Canadian Forces Base Borden, Egbert would make an ideal commuter’s home; only a 45-minute jaunt to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, but far from the madding crowds.

And that’s what makes it an ideal location for scientists.

Just as the world slowed down, seeing a sudden dramatic drop in the number of people using planes, trains and automobiles, cities across the world saw a drop in greenhouse gases. Scientists reported daily emissions falling by about 17 per cent.

And the International Energy Agency reported that lower emissions, largely as a result of the health pandemic, are expected to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change by nearly eight per cent this year — the largest decrease ever recorded.

“It’s obviously an extremely unusual time,” said Environment and Climate Change Canada climate, chemistry measurements and research scientist, Felix Vogel. “It’s a very unusual test case for us to be able to actually say: we turn off all the cars and reduce cars by 'X' amount, what would happen in the atmosphere?”

While data monitored in urban centres, such as Toronto, provides a picture of the highs and lows and information related to specific local emissions, Egbert’s Environment Canada’s Centre for Atmospheric Research Experiments (CARE) serves as a baseline, helping to round out the bigger picture.

Just how the impact of COVID-19 is affecting greenhouse gas emissions where we live is still being monitored and analyzed, with results expected in coming weeks. And while dramatic changes have been recorded worldwide, the overall impact is considered moderate.

In fact, National Geographic reported that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually crept up in May to the highest ever recorded in human history.

“We’ve turned the tap down by 10 or 20 per cent, but the tap is still running; there's still lots of carbon being used,” explained Vogel. “We might not see any change in some of the other greenhouse gases during the situation right now.

“From a long-term perspective, any short-term (changes) that we would see right now could be compensated very quickly once everything goes back to normal," Vogel added. "This short-term cut in emission that people predict based on reduced traffic and everything else is not really giving us any additional time.”

But time will only tell, he says, and efforts are still ongoing to meet international greenhouse gas emission reduction targets set through the 2016 Paris Agreement. 

So the work to monitor the human impact on the environment continues. Egbert, a fairly undisturbed location, provides scientists with a baseline of how the atmospheric conditions affect concentrations of air pollutants and greenhouse gases compared to more populated areas being monitored, such as in Downsview.

The Egbert location, says Vogel, provides a reference for all of Ontario of what undisturbed air should look like, reflecting large-scale continental atmospheric signals of carbon dioxide, which is very long-lived.

Vogel is among an array of scientists who monitor data collected at CARE on a sprawling field, up on a bit of a rise, in Egbert. The centre was established in 1988 to monitor Canada’s changing atmosphere and serves as a testing site for new methods to measure air pollution, climate, and weather conditions. 

Through laboratories and state-of-the-art monitoring equipment of all sizes located throughout the property, it serves as a platform for measurements of acid deposition, air quality, tropospheric ozone, greenhouse gases, and aerosols.

With about a dozen people working onsite, it allows atmospheric observation programs and intensive long-term field studies with national and international partners, according to information provided by Environment Canada.

But the Egbert facility also allows for other projects including:

  • The Canadian Air and Precipitation Monitoring Network‘s master station for measurements of pollutants both in the air and deposited to the surface of the ground;

  • The Greenhouse Gas Master Station, a regional station for the World Meteorological Organization Global Atmosphere Watch;

  • Canadian Brewer Spectrophotometer Network’s instruments monitoring the state of the ozone layer and measurements of ultraviolet radiation used to calculate the UV Index;

  • Remote sensing instruments to measure particles or gases;

  • Global Atmospheric Passive Sampling Network’s investigations of toxic chemicals in the air including pesticides, flame-retardants, surface protectors such as fluorinated chemicals and new and emerging compounds of concern;

  • The Canadian Atmospheric Mercury Measurement Network continuously monitors the levels of mercury in air;

  • The Meteorological Service of Canada also has an upper air site from where it launches weather balloons;

  •  A wind profiler array used for the prediction of tornadoes along with a weather station at the facility.

For Vogel, the facility allows for precise measurements up to the parts per billion to gauge the most important greenhouse gases influenced by human activity, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.

The measurements also zero in on carbon isotopes to figure out the kind of carbon dioxide molecule they’re examining that points to specific sources.

Measurements for methane gathered in Egbert are also examined against a wider data set. The scientists were able to see that the methane in the air is less than what was predicted in emission maps provided by U.S. and European researchers, for instance.

“It’s very important to be able to sort out if the increases we see here in the city are actually local or if it is something that is actually transported to us. And Egbert is actually the key,” said Vogel.

The bottom line, he says, is developing better information through cutting-edge research and translate that into information that policymakers and others can use to make decisions.

And with concerns about greenhouse gas emissions ever increasing, interest in the results produced from the Edgar facility are an important part of the bigger picture, says Vogel, even if only to show what shutting off our cars for a couple of months can produce.

“I hope by the summer or fall we will know much more… how much it has changed,” he said.

About the Author: Marg. Bruineman, Local Journalism Initiative

Marg. Buineman is an award-winning journalist covering justice issues and human interest stories for BarrieToday.
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