The tower of Gobabeb

Scientists from the Jena-based Max Planck Institute establish an outpost of climate research in the Namibian desert

February 19, 2013

High-precision monitoring stations provide basic data on climate change. Before conclusions on global cycles can be drawn, a global network is needed. A new facility has now closed an important gap.

He didn't call home when the data connection to the Institute in Jena went live. No red button was pressed or activated to mark the completion of the almost four-year long construction project. Jošt Lavrič, Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, celebrated the success quietly with his team in Namibia. Close to the Atlantic, just north of the Namib Desert, there now stands a 21-metre mast and ground station within the perimeter of the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre, its purpose being to continuously monitor the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. "There was no big TV moment; we simply climbed up to the top of the big dune when the work was done and watched a magnificent sunset", says the geochemist.

Backbone for better models

That was in the autumn of 2012. Since then, the Namib Desert Atmospheric Observatory (NDAO) has been working smoothly and constantly transmitting weather data and values on the concentration of greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, as well as carbon monoxide and oxygen. "High-precision facilities like this one are rare in Africa", says Lavrič. Processes that may impact climate can now be recorded on site. "In southern Africa, for example, extreme bush fires that influence the atmosphere occur regularly", explains the scientist. Apart from such seasonal impacts, the measurements also facilitate data to help clarify global climate change issues. This requires that the atmosphere be as free as possible of "outside influences". In short: no cities, no industry, no distortion through vegetation. Since none of these things are present in Gobabeb and the ocean is nearby, a 21-metre mast is sufficient. In Siberia, by contrast, the ZOTTO facility needs a 300-metre tower to reach strata of air that are free of local influences. However, given that the lower strata can also influence climate, two small towers that reach just above the treetops monitor the influence of the forest and the swamp. This station is also run by the Jena-based Institute, while other MPG projects, such as the construction of the similarly tall ATTO tower in the Amazon, are led by the MPI for Chemistry in Mainz. Together with the MPI for Meteorology in Hamburg, the three Institutes form the Earth System Research Partnership (ESRP) and connect international networks with leading institutes.

The data measured at stationary facilities is important as an evidence base for the wide spectrum of climate research. "We are constantly obtaining values on the specific climate situation, and this data flow allows us to improve the models. The causes of climate change can then be better described, and prognosis becomes more accurate", says Lavrič. It is of central importance that the measurements are taken continuously over a period of years. As partners in Namibia, colleagues at the Gobabeb Research Centre are responsible for maintenance. "But we are ultimately responsible for the management", says Lavrič.

Delayed in port

The 40-year-old has been with the Institute since 2009, and his Group in Martin Heimann's department is responsible for five stations around the world. The Gobabeb facility was conceived and its technical equipment prepared in Jena, involving more than a dozen employees. Many details had to be taken into account. For instance, the monitoring system in the ground container requires air conditioning, but "electricity is extremely expensive in the desert", explains Lavrič, "so we had to downscale consumption and optimize performance at the same time."

This type of project requires not only expertise, but also a feel for diplomacy, he says, referring to negotiations with the Namibian partners. When all issues were finally clarified, the transport was virtually problem-free. Only in Spain were the two containers held in port for longer than planned. It took six weeks to assemble the structure, working in two teams. First, three technicians built the mast and ground container, then Lavrič and two colleagues took over and installed the monitoring equipment. The fact that there was no joint celebration was partly due to this set-up: the first team had already left when the facility went live. However, they do all plan to get together again in Jena, says Lavrič. "In spring, when it's nice and warm, we'll celebrate together. That's for sure."


Go to Editor View