RV Investigator gives Hobart air quality a check-up during COVID-19 shutdown

Scientists are making the most of having research vessel Investigator in port during the COVID-19 shutdown by using the ship’s instruments to collect valuable data about Hobart’s air quality.

CSIRO research vessel Investigator is currently docked in Hobart while at-sea operations are suspended due to the COVID-19 shutdown. While in port, scientists are using the ship’s advanced atmospheric instruments to monitor emissions and pollutants in the Hobart area.

Atmospheric instruments on RV Investigator include a new generation Doppler weather research radar (centre).

The data collected will offer a unique snapshot of Hobart air quality during the COVID-19 shutdown, with the reduction in vehicle use and other changes in human activity, and provide an opportunity to compare this with other years.

Technical Officer with CSIRO, Mr Ian McRobert, emphasised that the shutdown of at-sea operations of the ship didn’t mean that there was a shutdown in the science.

“Having RV Investigator in Hobart for an extended period provides us with an opportunity to collect some really useful data about Hobart’s air quality”, Mr McRobert said.

“Hobart has a complex atmospheric environment that contains a range of sources of atmospheric gases and aerosols. These include nearby residential and industrial areas which contribute to urban emissions, and bushland around Hobart which contributes to natural emissions.

“With RV Investigator’s wide array of instruments for monitoring the atmosphere, we’ll be able to collect data for a range of emissions and pollutants in the area, including gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. The data collected will allow us to better understand Hobart’s complex atmospheric environment”, he said.

A custom-designed air intake on the foremast samples air for analysis on board.  © Zoran Ristovski, QUT

CSIRO atmospheric scientist from the Climate Science Centre, Dr Melita Keywood, said the data would also provide information to help inform the management of air quality in the Hobart area.

“Another important gas measurement made by the instruments on RV Investigator is tropospheric ozone, which is ozone found in the lower atmosphere”, Dr Keywood said.

“Tropospheric ozone is both an air pollutant and greenhouse gas, and is one of six major air pollutants for which national air quality standards have been set.

“Previous measurements have shown ozone concentrations in Tasmania to be low but there has been no systematic monitoring of ozone and little data is available for Hobart”, she said.

The last time tropospheric ozone was measured in any formal program in Hobart was over 25 years ago.

“The new extended program of measurements from RV Investigator will provide an opportunity for comparison and help us understand how local conditions and activities effect ozone concentration”, Dr Keywood said.

The ship’s Hobart monitoring program will also provide data for an urban air quality study being led by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). This study will seek to improve our understanding of the source and movement of ultrafine particles (UFP) in the atmosphere. 

“UFP are aerosol particles smaller than 100 nanometres and pose risks to human health as they can penetrate deep into the lungs, pass into the blood stream and cause a variety of diseases”, Dr Keywood said. 

Scientists analyse air samples in the Aerosol Laboratory located in the bow of the ship.  © Ann Jones, ABC

The QUT study will investigate the impact of UFP in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Auckland to better assess the health risks they pose. The data collected by RV Investigator during the extended Hobart port period will offer an additional city for the study.

Collecting this wide range of atmospheric data is possible due to the advanced systems on board RV Investigator. The instruments for atmospheric monitoring are permanently onboard the ship, meaning that every time it sails, and wherever the ship is docked, the instruments are collecting data.

“The ship may not currently be moving but the science still is!”, Mr McRobert said.

RV Investigator is currently scheduled to remain in its home port of Hobart until the anticipated restart of research operations in the second half of the year.

See more of the wide range of research delivered by RV Investigator in the stunning new series ‘Australia’s Ocean Odyssey ’ screening on ABC and ABC iview from Tuesday 9 June at 8.30pm.

Media contact

Mr Matt Marrison

Communication Advisor Matt.Marrison@csiro.au +61 3 6232 5197