One of the many perks of being a PhD student is that it can take you out to some really cool places for conferences or fieldwork. My PhD project has brought me to East Asia twice now, and this time it was for the 14th meeting of the International Global Atmospheric Chemistry project (IGAC), in the coastal town of Takamatsu, Japan. With 250-odd other early career researchers, and nearly 1000 delegates in total, it was the biggest conference I have attended so far! The microscale variation of subdivisions within this single branch of atmospheric science blew me away a little bit; who would have thought that just within one specialism, each poster and oral presentation could be so unique?
Modellers and instrumentalists and chemists and meteorologists and other species of Researcher gathered round to talk about the past, present and future of the composition of the lowermost part of the atmosphere. While an understanding of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and aerosols of the entire vertical span of the atmosphere is fundamental to mitigating the dangers of a globally changing climate, it is their impact within the troposphere that interests me most. This is where anthropogenic emissions have been escalating since mid-19th century, unprecedentedly so in the past 50 years, now returning to bite our lungs like some terrible karma. This is where mortality rates resulting from short episodes of elevated concentrations of microscopic particulate matter (PM) in developing megacities (and also London) soar. On the rise are also hospitalisations due to pulmonary disease as a result of high ozone, whose net production is usually a response to high NOx and volatile organic compounds (VOCs, i.e. stuff emitted by road transport) – certainly in the UK, and generally worldwide. Research in this field is much needed in order to: model the future societal impacts of pollution in a changing climate; or make robust measurements of specific pollutant species both at ground level and using remote instruments on satellites; or to create accurate regional emissions inventories; or to avoid the Arctic meltdown by understanding the interaction of aerosols with incoming sunrays; or to provide the most accurate short-term forecasts of high pollution concentrations on local, regional and global scales, both within and above the the troposphere… I could sit here and keep listing the research areas and their importance to society and nature; alas I only have 11 hours of this flight home left! (note: this was written on the plane…).
But the take-home message remains the same: scientists must make a global effort to gather all the possible knowledge, communicating it to 8 billion people and through to politicians to create necessarily science-based policy to stay below the 1.5C limit. It is a call of urgency for the scientific community to put their knowledge to action. A call of urgency for billions of people to do what they personally can to influence all governments to take action. A call of urgency for governments to, well, act.
And all these little bits of our research integrate to a function of time, encompassing the impacts of anthropogenic activity on the type, scale and rate of global climate change. Sometimes it is difficult to see that bigger picture. As a young scientist, my peripheral vision is easily bounded by the opaque walls of my own bubble of research, where it can be all too easy to spend three days on trying (and failing) to get the model running, or calibrating that instrument to no avail. “It doesn’t even matter! Why did I not just take that grad scheme in investment banking!? “ you ask your infinite wisdom. And then, quite possibly, “To hell with it all, I’m going for a beer”. (Although of course, some of the greatest scientists have in the past exchanged ideas and knowledge with peers over a pint or four!). But my point here is that immersing myself in the academic community of research (eg. by attending such conferences) is one of the best ways to clear the haze and remind myself why the corporate grad scheme was not the right path for me to take.
Anyway, to backtrack a little: Japan is a wonderful place and I am incredibly lucky to have been given this opportunity to visit and present my own research on a poster. The Early Careers programme was enjoyable, providing opportunities for established scientists to share some academic life tips with us over a lunch. And karaoke is fun.
Some extra reads if you’re interested in air pollution and health:
Macintyre et al. 2016, “Mortality and emergency hospitalizations associated with atmospheric particulate matter episodes across the UK in spring 2014”
Gurjar et al. 2010, “Human health risks in megacities due to air pollution”
Ito et al. 2005, “Associations between Ozone and Daily Mortality: Analysis and Meta-Analysis.”
Schwartz, J. and Marcus, A. 1990, “Mortality and air pollution London: a time-series analysis”