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The Warsaw Voice » Society » March 31, 2015
Institute of Geophysics Polish Academy of Science
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Eye on the Atmosphere
March 31, 2015   
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The Department of Atmospheric Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geophysics conducts research into ozone, ultraviolet solar radiation, air pollutants and electric processes in the atmosphere.

As part of its two flagship research projects, the department measures solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation near the Earth’s surface and the total content of ozone in the atmosphere. The department’s research into ozone began in the early 1960s while studies focusing on ultraviolet radiation started in the 1970s. The projects are some of the world’s longest-running in this field of research.

The term atmospheric ozone has a broader meaning than just the ozone layer that surrounds the Earth 22 kilometers above the planet, protecting life from the harmful effects of solar ultraviolet radiation. Certain amounts of ozone are also found elsewhere in the atmosphere. Near ground level, ozone can be harmful to people, animals and plants when it becomes a component of smog. Janusz Jarosławski, Ph.D. who heads the atmospheric ozone and solar radiation division of the Department of Atmospheric Physics, says ozone is a product of natural photochemical processes in the atmosphere. While people do not directly produce ozone, natural processes can be intensified by air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons. “Thankfully, ground-level ozone concentrations have started to decline in recent years as a result of cuts in emissions of ozone precursors, including strict regulations on exhaust gases from cars,” says Jarosławski. Ozone is classified as a greenhouse gas, but its impact on the temperature of the atmosphere is not as strong as that of carbon dioxide. It does, however, have a significant impact on the stratosphere, whose temperature is naturally raised due to the presence of ozone.

“The measurements we have conducted for over 50 years at the Central Geophysical Laboratory in Belsk [south of Warsaw] have since the beginning been part of a global atmospheric ozone measurement network,” says Jarosławski. “The network’s database is located in Canada. We send our results there on a daily basis, helping to create a global picture of the ozone layer. This data, presented as a global ozone map, is available online at www.exp-studies.tor.ec.gc.ca/e/ozone/Curr_allmap_n.htm

The Department of Atmospheric Physics is also involved in a European project called COST that aims to establish an automated ozone measurement network for Europe within the global network.

“The term ozone hole is used with reference to the Antarctic,” says Jarosławski. “Every spring (autumn in Poland), ozone vanishes at a certain altitude over the Antarctic, reducing the ozone layer to just a third of its normal thickness.” That triggers an increase in the amount of UV rays that reach the Earth. In the 1990s, a similar process took place over Europe, but to a much lesser extent. Excessive ultraviolet radiation leads to cancer, skin lesions and eye problems. Our bodies need UV rays, however, to synthesize vitamin D. At the geographical latitude where Poland is located, the production of vitamin D stops in humans in winter, resulting in vitamin D deficiencies. This problem is studied at the Department of Atmospheric Physics as well. The department’s researchers have teamed up with dermatologists to seek ways to use ultraviolet radiation in the treatment of skin diseases such as psoriasis.

Another major field of research at the Department of Atmospheric Physics is the electricity of atmospheric phenomena. Jarosławski compares the Earth’s atmosphere to a global electric circuit. “We try to measure the currents that flow through this circuit,” says Jarosławski. “Everything that happens above us, in the ionosphere, for instance, affects our lives and things such as radio communications.” Electric phenomena include thunderstorms, making them a natural subject of interest for the Department of Atmospheric Physics. The researchers have a system to detect atmospheric discharges that allows them to determine where and what kind of lightning struck at a given time. This data finds practical application in the design of lightning protection systems.

The research on electric processes in the atmosphere is conducted at the department’s observatory in ¦wider near Warsaw . Established before World War II, this is one of the oldest facilities of its kind in Poland.

The department also pursues theoretical research on the boundary layer of the atmosphere that in summer stretches from the ground to a height of 2-3 km.

In the early 1990s, the Department of Atmospheric Physics began research on the properties of atmospheric aerosols—solid but very small particles and droplets of liquids (with the exception of droplets of water in clouds) that are suspended in the air.

In the lowest layers of the atmosphere, such particles and droplets are inhaled by people. Atmospheric aerosols mitigate the greenhouse effect by facilitating cloud formation and directly reducing the amount of sunlight that penetrates the atmosphere. Atmospheric aerosol measurements employ Lidar devices that combine laser and radar technology to determine the vertical distribution of aerosols. The Department of Atmospheric Physics is a member of the European Aerosol Research Lidar Network (Earlinet).

The department uses similar methods to monitor the amount of pollutants in the air, including ground-level ozone. The department’s measuring station is part of Poland’s air pollution monitoring network. Apart from monitoring the amount of pollutants, the network issues warnings about temporary declines in air quality. Pollutants monitored and researched by the Department of Atmospheric Physics include ozone, suspended dust, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide.

In 2010, the Department of Atmospheric Physics studied the impact of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruptions in Iceland. “We tried to see if dust from the eruptions appeared over Poland,” says Jarosławski. “The ash cloud turned out to be much smaller than feared.”

The Institute of Geophysics has for many years worked with the Chief Inspectorate of Environmental Protection. Polish government agencies tasked the institute with monitoring the ozone layer when, in 1987, a group of countries signed the Montreal Protocol and committed themselves to taking action to prevent ozone layer depletion. After joining the EU, Poland has been faced with tougher requirements concerning air quality control. Air quality monitoring stations in Polish provinces have since been modernized. EU regulations require that Poland meet new air quality standards over the next several years.
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