RV Investigator checks up on Hobart air quality during COVID-19 shutdown

By Kashmi Ranasinghe

1 June 2020

5 minute read

The deck of RV Investigator with people on board

RV Investigator’s advanced atmospheric instruments are perfect for measuring Hobart air quality. Image: Ann Jones, ABC.

“Mum! Can we go and get pizza?”

“No! There’s food at home.”

We’ve all had this said to us at some point in our lives. RV Investigator is no different. Our research vessel normally sails the high seas and gathers data from far off magical marine environments. But COVID-19 has grounded the ship and its research voyages until further notice. So, what can you do if you can’t get your science from elsewhere? You science at home, of course!

RV Investigator has spent the last few months measuring Hobart’s air quality while docked in port.

Take a minute to breathe it in

There are many adjectives to describe the air quality in Hobart. Complex is one of them.

“Hobart has an atmospheric environment that contains a range of sources of atmospheric gases and aerosols,” Technical Officer, Ian McRobert said.

These include nearby residential and industrial areas which contribute to urban emissions. And bushland around Hobart which contributes to natural emissions,” Ian said.

But here’s the thing. There are some emissions in Hobart not commonly measured or haven’t been measured for many years. It’s safe to say in recent years there have likely been some changes in emissions and pollutants. Some of these aerosols and gases have the potential to impact environmental and human health. One example is ozone, an air pollutant which is a concern to human health. Ozone hasn’t been measured in about 25 years.

Air particles also come in different sizes and are made up of different chemicals. So, they need to be measured as well as counted. Who better to provide new updates than the ship with multiple advanced atmospheric instruments and nowhere to go?

A large RV Investigator with blue and green detailing in the distance. There is fog lifting from the ocean

RV Investigator docked in Hobart port. The ship normally does 300 research days a year! Image: Shane and Sandra Rollins.

A pandemic won’t stop RV Investigator’s plans

Scientists have been onboard to maintain the instruments measuring pollutants and emissions in the Hobart area. These instruments usually collect atmospheric data at sea to paint a complex picture of global climate.

“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,” Ian said.

The aim is to provide a unique snapshot of the area’s air quality during the COVID-19 shutdown. There’s a reduction in car use and other human activity. The scientists want to compare the recently gathered data with previous and future years.

One of our atmospheric scientists from the Climate Science Centre, Dr Melita Keywood, added the data could help those who manage Hobart’s air quality.

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

“Tropospheric ozone is both an air pollutant and greenhouse gas. It’s also 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.”

Scientists looking down at instruments on RV Investigator

Scientists analyse Hobart air quality samples in the Aerosol Laboratory located in the bow of the ship. Image: Ann Jones, ABC.

Science in your own backyard

Working on RV Investigator while docked in port has been a novel experience for the scientists and technicians. The ship normally delivers 300 research days each year!

“During the shutdown, I have been going to the ship once a week to perform maintenance. I’ve also been doing what I can remotely on other days to monitor the systems and fix any bugs that crop up. It’s very satisfying to see all the work we’ve put in over the last few years to automate the systems as much as possible paying off,” Ian said.

The ship’s daily activity has also been pulled back beyond what you’d normally see in port.

“Normally, it’s a hive of activity in port. But now it’s very quiet. We now go through a process of health declarations and temperature screening to get on board.”

“With the ship stuck in Hobart, I’m glad that we can productively use the station and target some specific scientific objectives,” he said.

There’s an air about this

The information gathered through the instruments will contribute to 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. They can penetrate deep into the lungs, pass into the bloodstream and cause a variety of diseases,” Melita said.

The study originally focussed on UFP in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Auckland in assessing 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.

But it’s not all good news for RV Investigator. The ship is scheduled to remain in port until the anticipated restart of research operations in the second half of the year.

However, as Ian said, “The ship may not currently be moving but the science still is!”

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