Set atop a small hill with a mountainous backdrop, Niwa’s Lauder site might feel worlds away from civilisation, but data recorded at the centre is used globally to track the effects of climate change.
The Lauder site has been providing consistent climate data since it began recording in 1961.
Having long-term, detailed records was crucial to detect atmospheric changes over time, atmospheric science technician Wills Dobson said, and data collected at Lauder was uploaded on to global databases for other international organisations to use.
Scientists were not looking for anything in particular, he pointed out. Instead, work involved recording, cross-checking and validating data to monitor trends.
“You don’t know what’s happening until you measure it.
“It’s more looking at the long term – what’s happening across decades.”
Instruments of all shapes and sizes are set up both indoors and outside, all of which require constant checking, calibrating and monitoring.
Devices at Lauder measure everything from radiation and ultraviolet light to infrared and clouds. Several different instruments measure the same thing, the values then compared to ensure accuracy.
One measurement might not be correct, and accuracy was essential when monitoring climate data, Mr Dobson said.
Among the instruments used at Lauder is an ozonesonde, which is launched into the sky by balloon once a week to measure trace gases in the atmosphere. A chemical solution carried with it reacts with the gases before sending an electrical current that is then recorded on the ground.
Another device is a Dobson spectrophotometer – “the grandfather of zone measurement” – which records total ozone gas. There are about 100 Dobsons located around the world.
But the instruments are sensitive to outside pressures – cleaning off “interference” from birds was a less glamorous part of the job and they also needed to be calibrated frequently, Mr Dobson said.
“Having an instrument measure something is useless unless it’s calibrated.”
Or there is the Bruker Fourier transform interferometer, which needs to be cooled to about -190degC using liquid nitrogen to properly function.
But some of the instruments are beginning to show their age – one computer still uses an early operating system. It was a matter of upgrading and developing new instruments, while at the same time keeping earlier models going, Mr Dobson said.
“We want to have these going as long as possible.
“These actually do it really accurately and really well.”
Instruments from global research organisations were also housed at the site as the clear, undisturbed skies made Lauder one of the premier atmospheric research stations in the southern hemisphere, Mr Dobson said.