Searching southern skies

For a small group of unassuming buildings nestled amongst the wide-open spaces of the Maniototo, the Lauder Atmospheric Research Station punches well above its weight.

Lauder Atmospheric Research Station campus.

For a small group of unassuming buildings nestled amongst the wide-open spaces of the Maniototo, the Lauder Atmospheric Research Station punches well above its weight.

The station, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in April, is situated about 36km from Alexandra, almost exactly halfway between the equator and the South Pole.

Deliberately chosen for its remote location and the clear skies above, it was opened in 1961 as an ideal site for monitoring Southern Hemisphere atmospheric conditions.

It is now home to nine NIWA scientists and technicians.

Their work, measuring gases in the southern atmosphere, helps to benchmark global understanding of, among other things, climate change, skin cancer causing ultraviolet (UV) radiation levels and ozone levels.

The team maintain an impressive array of instruments, including some state-of-the-art equipment that is operated in collaboration with overseas science institutes. The data generated from the Central Otago skies feeds into several key international monitoring networks.

Lauder’s reputation as an internationally significant and much respected scientific facility stems from the length of time consistent measurements have been made at the site, and what they have revealed about our changing atmosphere and climate.

Today its focus is largely on measuring the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, along with UV research.

Atmospheric scientist and Lauder group manager, Dr Richard Querel, says the instruments used to measure ozone, UV radiation, methane and carbon dioxide have enabled scientists to see small trends over several decades.

Dr Richard Querel, Lauder group manager. 

“If you don’t have good data, then you’re speculating. High quality, traceable, well-calibrated data, comparable to other sites – that’s the bread and butter stuff we do here.”

Querel says the importance of having these long time series has been amplified since the advent of satellites. While satellites can provide global coverage, they may only be up for a few years, and there may be significant gaps before another one is launched.

Continuous ground-based measurements, like those from Lauder, “ground truth” satellite observations and tie individual satellites together.

Lauder began as a station measuring auroral activity, between 100 and 400km above, to better understand its effects on compass readings and radio signals. In the late 1970s interest in upper atmospheric research diminished and was replaced by research into the stratosphere (15–50km).

Work at Lauder was crucial in the efforts that led to the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole in 1985 and the 1987 signing of the Montreal Protocol – a successful international treaty that resulted in the phasing out of ozone-depleting substances.

One of the most recent staff additions to Lauder is Dr Alex Geddes. Originally from the UK, Geddes has played a central role in Lauder’s recent modernisation programme and the introduction of new instruments to extend research opportunities.

He says Lauder is “world-famous” in atmospheric science circles.

“It is like gold dust – there are not many really good measuring sites in the Southern Hemisphere and Lauder is the most well-instrumented and most highly regarded."

“You know that if we see changes happening in the atmosphere at Lauder, they’re definitely real and a big deal.”

“There is so much going on here and we have to keep advancing.”

One of the new projects at Lauder is MethaneSAT – a joint US-New Zealand space mission that will see a satellite launched next year to locate and measure methane from human sources around the globe.

Geddes says the objective is to look at methane leaks across the world at very high resolution, initially from oil and gas production facilities, but also from agricultural sources.

“We don’t have much oil and gas in New Zealand, so we want to look at agricultural methane emissions which account for about 75% of all methane emitted here.”

Geddes says the findings will help design emissions reduction strategies.

While technology is changing at Lauder, some things remain. Manual weather observations are recorded weekly to ensure the integrity of the time series and, conditions permitting, an upper air monitoring balloon is launched every Tuesday.

And when the skies are clear, passers-by may see a thin green laser beam shooting into the night sky as the aerosol lidar heads to infinity.

Six decades on, and Lauder is still making waves.

This story forms part of Water and Atmosphere - August 2021, read more stories from this series.

Dr Penny Smale and Mike Kotkamp prepare an ozonesonde balloon. The balloon  carrys and ozonesone which transmits valuable atmospheric data back to base until the balloon bursts more than 30 km up.