A unique dust monitoring site in Barbados will be reborn
From a new sampling tower to new state-of-the-art instruments, Barbados’s half-century-old Atmospheric Chemistry Observatory will receive a major upgrade thanks to major funding from the National Science Foundation.
See-through mesh filters mounted atop a 55ft tower on a cliff in Barbados still take on a dark red hue after just a few hours of exposure to the elements – positive proof that dust from the Sahara, fueled by high winds , travels across the Atlantic to reach the Caribbean Basin and the Americas.
For decades, scientists at the University of Miami’s Barbados Atmospheric Chemistry Observatory (BACO) have collected dust samples in precisely this way, using instruments to study how tiny particles affect clouds, climate and air quality.
But for a very long time, researchers who worked and relied on the data generated by the facility knew it could be something more than just a site that documents the transport of desert dust. .
Now, a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation will unleash its full potential.
“This funding is much more than an upgrade,” said Cassandra Gaston, an atmospheric chemist at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, who led the grant proposal that will renovate the BACO site she operates. for three years.
“It’s really a rebirth, a reinvention,” she noted. “We will still deploy filters to observe the transport of African dust. But the new instruments we are getting will allow us to take measurements that we have never been able to do before.
The facility’s three-and-a-half-storey tower will be replaced. And a suite of new instruments – from a trace metal monitor to an aerosol chemical speciation device – will be delivered by cargo ship, allowing researchers to take measurements that improve real-time climate models and study indicators. pollution, smoke, black carbon, and ocean emissions.
The new instruments, Gaston pointed out, will also allow scientists to conduct more studies of the dust’s health effects, such as its impact on pediatric asthma rates on the island. For years, researchers have tried to establish this link. But studies of the relationship have been sparse. “Now, with the new instruments that we are going to get, we will have a better idea of the impact of dust transport events on human health,” Gaston said.
Such studies will benefit not only the Caribbean but also other regions. While Barbados is usually the first land mass that Saharan dust will reach, the particles often travel farther, even reaching the US Gulf Coast in late spring and early summer.
Two years ago, in early summer, for example, a thick Saharan dust plume nearly 4,000 miles long traveled to Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Cuba before moving into the Gulf of Mexico , impacting areas with a high concentration of particles. Scientists dubbed the massive plume the “Godzilla” dust event.
An improved BACO facility will attract researchers from across the University and around the world, who will conduct their own research. It will also fuel collaborations with Gaston’s research group as well as with other scientists from the Rosenstiel school.
“It opens up a whole host of doors,” she said of the NSF grant.
Tropical cyclone experts interested in studying how dust suppresses hurricane formation, public health researchers who want to learn more about the microbial life that walks on dust plumes, and environmental engineers who want to document the impacts of pollution are just a handful of surveys and improved BACO might appear.
“The instrument payload we get is deliberately designed to mirror that of a major initiative to fund air quality monitoring measurements across the country,” Gaston revealed. “And that means we’ll be able to inform a myriad of important air quality studies being conducted across the United States.”
Paquita Zuidema, professor and chair of atmospheric sciences, who partnered with Gaston on the NSF grant proposal to improve the site and whose research focuses on the relationship between clouds warm shallows and the large-scale environment, said an improved BACO would allow him to “guess” how dust and smoke affect trade wind cumulus clouds.
“The processes governing trade wind cumulus clouds over Barbados are similar to what we experience in Miami during periods of good weather,” Zuidema pointed out. “A better understanding of these processes is important to more robustly predict how these clouds will behave in an altered climate. Dust-cloud interactions may also act to augment or offset the effects of trade wind clouds on climate, and the datasets acquired through BACO will help articulate them.
A revamped facility in Barbados will have a direct impact on the research that will be conducted at the University of Miami’s new Center for Aerosol Science and Technology which will officially launch early next year. The center will involve collaborations between faculty members and students from the Department of Chemical, Environmental and Materials Engineering in the College of Engineering; the Rosenstiel school; and the Miller School of Medicine. It will study how aerosols affect the environment, climate and human health. And it will also focus on broader aspects of aerosol science engineering applications such as nanoparticle technology.
Pratim Biswas, a renowned aerosol scientist and dean of the College of Engineering, plans to use his lab’s smaller aerosol monitoring sensors in concert with newly installed instruments at the Barbados site to conduct studies of all kinds. on air quality. “These distributed particle sensors will allow mapping of the spatial and temporal distribution of aerosols and will further enable integration with data from satellite systems,” he explained. His research group has previously used sensors to study air quality in major cities in China, Taiwan and India.
“BACO has generated a huge volume of data,” said Biswas, who partnered with Gaston on the NSF grant proposal to upgrade the site. “With the upgrades, it’s only going to get better.”
For Joseph Prospero, the legendary atmospheric scientist and Emeritus Professor of the Rosenstiel School who in 1971 established the Ragged Point Observatory in the far east of Barbados, the impending upgrades are a dream come true.
“I had been trying for years to get the place renovated,” he recalls. “It’s hard to fund programs that are on a limb, so to speak, because it wasn’t conventional research that we were doing.”
In the 1960s, it was Prospero and his colleague, Toby Carlson, who discovered the phenomenon of Saharan dust transport and the Saharan air layer, reporting their findings in leading scientific journals. “Today, when you turn on your TV at night to watch the weather forecast for the summer months, [meteorologists] talk about Saharan dust. It’s now part of routine forecasting,” Prospero said.
But as the observatory grew older – at one point sampling at the site was even halted – the important research that Prospero and later scientists conducted in Barbados was in danger of being halted for good.
“Now the work we continue to do, examining the relationship between Saharan dust and weather and climate, is all the more important,” Prospero said.