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Climate change, the ozone layer and seaweed

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David Gregory | 18:27 UK time, Wednesday, 20 February 2013

NASA global hawk robot drone

If there's one thing science reporters know it's that you don't confuse stories about climate change with stories about damage to the ozone layer.

But at the University of Birmingham researchers think it is possible that the two may be linked and that climate change could cause damage to the ozone layer thanks to a natural chemical produced by seaweed.

To find out more they're looking to gather data from both ends of the problem. Working with NASA they will be using a robot drone to gather data some twenty kilometres in the sky, that's twice the height of a commercial jet.

BAe 146 FAAM research aircraft. One previous old lady owner.

Meanwhile just above sea level a British plane will be carrying out the same measurements although this time there are no robots but rather a staff of around fifteen researchers on board.

What the scientists will be looking for is a natural chemical given off by seaweed. A chemical that can damage the ozone layer when it gets up there. The big question is whether or not climate change is driving more of this chemical into the sky.

Combining data from the drone and the aircraft will allow the University of Birmingham scientists to improve their climate models and learn more about this fascinating seaweed problem. It's unlikely seaweed will cause the kind of holes in the ozone layer pollution did. But the researchers say any damage at all will be a sign of the unpredictable effects climate change could have.

Meanwhile it seems robot drones are set to revolutionise this sort of work. Until now you've needed to rely on very brave pilots wearing something closer to a spacesuit than a traditional flightsuit. Pilots need to retreat from very high altitude for rests during a flight, drones of course have no such problems.

Mind you the British plane doing the sea level work is also pretty cool. The aeroplane was originally a flight test prototype, but was completely rebuilt for this role - fitting over 4 tonnes of special equipment, as well as uprated systems and engines and a strengthened fuselage. Typically it flies with over 20 computers and over 50 specialist instruments on any flight, as well as a crew of up to 22.

This is a long term project which will take several years to complete, but it should give us a much better idea of what's going on in the atmosphere right over our heads.


George asks for more detail in the comments about these chemicals. There's a very good article from Nature about all this. Subscription only unfortunately. But basically these are bromine compounds which the researchers say have an impact on the ozone layer. So they're the naturally produced equivalent of the ozone-damaging compounds made to be used in fire extinguishers.


Added in extra and more accurate detail about the British aircraft courtesy Dr Guy Gratton.


  • Comment number 1.

    Do you know what this 'natural chemical' is David? Some of us chemists have an interest in the detail (which incidentally I could not find via the Birmingham University link either).


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