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Measuring pollutants in Deosai

July 28, 2013

The Deosai plateau, located at an average height of 4,000 metres above sea level, is among the highest plateaus in the world. For over half the year, Deosai is snow-bound. In the summer months when the snow melts, Deosai is accessible by jeep. Situated in Gilgit-Baltistan, the Deosai plateau can be accessed by jeep from Skardu on the northern side. Located far away from local emissions (from factories, cars and cooking stoves), there are giant air mass movements over the plateau, with air flowing freely over the 3,000 sq km of the Deosai plains. It is a good place to monitor pollutants and the ideal location for a climate observatory, which is currently being set up by Italian researchers in collaboration with the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) and Wapda. Since the last century, Italian explorers like the Duke of Abruzzi and Count Ardito Desio have been researching the Karakoram Mountains and this tradition is carrying on until today.

A group of journalists had been invited to report on the scientific activities taking place in the Deosai plateau by the Italian-run (Sustainable Ecological and Economic Development) SEED project (a five-year scientific project that will end in 2014) that is working in the Central Karakoram National Park. We arrived in Deosai in mid-June only to find a snowstorm blowing around the camp where the Italian and Pakistani researchers had set up their tents and the Pakistan Climate Observatory. Snowstorms in June are apparently quite common in Deosai and the local villagers usually venture up there in July with their livestock for grazing when the lush green grassland comes alive with millions of wild flowers (no trees can grow at this height). Deosai has been declared a national park for the many wildlife species that are found there.

Once the snow melts, Deosai appears to be one big wetland crisscrossed with countless streams, springs and lakes, but unfortunately all we saw were the snow-coated plains. The snowflakes came down softly at first and then began to cover the ground with around one foot of snow. We had enough time to visit the climate observatory and interview the Italian scientists before heading back down (the jeep track becomes muddy and impossible to navigate if it snows too heavily). Gian Pietro Verza, the leading Italian researcher who actually works for the Ev-K2-CNR Committee (set up in 1987 to study remote mountain regions of Everest and K-2) was there to greet us and tell us about the (Stations at High Altitude for Research on Environment) SHARE project (which sets up stations at high altitude for research). Gian Pietro has already helped to set up a ‘pyramid’ on Mount Everest, which is the highest weather station in the world located at 5,600 metres. Ev-K2-CNR has become an expert in developing technologies for extreme conditions and the pyramid is an aluminium and glass structure which houses a permanent laboratory run by locally trained Sherpa staff in Nepal.

In Deosai, the Ev-K2-CNR team has set up high-tech equipment to analyse air quality next to the weather station already built by Wapda. Called “Nano-share 5.0” it is a very small white machine powered by solar panels, which the researchers can carry with them everywhere to conduct studies in air quality. Previously this kind of machine would need a truck to carry it but now the technology has been miniaturised and the machine can run throughout winter with its powerful battery. Gian Pietro and his colleague Marcello Alborghetti were working with two researchers from PMD and two from Wapda in a scientific collaboration between the governments of Italy and Pakistan. “With this machine we can trace the movements of pollutants in high- altitude and clean places like Deosai,” he explained as the snow came down. “It is a very sensitive machine and we can try to detect ozone and black carbon which can help with scientific studies.” The data is stored in a processor memory, which can store large quantities of data, and can be transferred via satellite to researchers in Italy and elsewhere.

At the time of our visit, Gian Pietro was testing the machine and conducting a preliminary survey. Why is this kind of information important? Researchers in Asia are already alarmed by the Atmospheric Brown Clouds (ABCs), which are observed as widespread layers of brownish haze. These regional plumes of air pollutants consist mainly of aerosol particles, such as black carbon, and precursor gases. ABCs and their interaction with the build-up of greenhouse gases significantly affect the regional climate and hydrological cycle, glacial melting, agriculture and human health. The effect of ABCs needs to be fully studied but scientists say they can slow down the monsoon circulation and reduce its rainfall, while enhancing the greenhouse warming of the atmosphere thus contributing to glacier melting. The United Nations Environment Programme has initiated the ABC Project, which has a network of over a dozen climate observatories located across Asia and the Pacific equipped with state-of-the-art instruments to measure radiation, aerosol, precipitation chemistry and meteorology (including the pyramid on Mount Everest). The climate observatory in Deosai is the first permanent ABC station in Pakistan.

The Pakistan Climate Observatory can trace the ABCs, which are moving pollutants. According to Gian Pietro, “We can trace the movements of these pollutants from the ground and satellites with the new machine. With the measurements we can verify in a few days if the brown clouds are moving.” The climate observatory can provide the scientific data needed to trace these brown clouds in more detail so that we can have a complete understanding of climate change and its impacts on Pakistan and this region.