Paul Fraser: the Air Man of Cape Grim
Paul Fraser looks at things that aren’t there, and at invisible things. He came up with the idea of having a library of air. But it’s not because he’s a bit odd – he’s not. He’s doing these things as part of some vitally important science.
Working at CSIRO since 1974, Paul tracks the hole in the ozone layer and studies our changing atmosphere, monitoring all the major greenhouse gases that drive climate change. One of his chief research tools is the CSIRO/Bureau of Meteorology Cape Grim Air Archive – the most extensive and important ongoing collection of pristine air samples in the world.
Not only did Paul help set up the Cape Grim Air Monitoring Station back in the 1970s, but in an impressive bit of prescience, he also realised that at some future stage scientists will be interested in atmospheric gases that at the time were not being (or could not be) measured. It had already been established that air samples stored in stainless steel flasks retained their original properties – the storage didn’t alter their composition. Atmospheric scientists were already collecting samples to use as reference gases, so it was a simple matter to retain samples for the day when they could be measured for other purposes. Simple, but invaluable.
And so, since 1978, every three months, researchers collect about 1000 litres of pristine Southern Ocean air and store it at high pressure, to produce the Cape Grim Air Archive. From small samples of ‘vintage air’, it’s possible, for example, to determine the rate of decrease of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere, how the growth rates of others have slowed, and how the atmospheric concentrations of CFC replacement chemicals (hydrofluorcarbons – HFCs) have grown.
Obviously, it would also be helpful to look at air from before 1978 – but no one had collected it. Fortunately, a natural process had. Polar firn (compacted snow) and ice (compacted firn) contain trapped air – so it provides precious, but small, samples over 2000 years or more. Again, Paul and his colleagues Graeme Pearman and David Etheridge hit upon the idea of repurposing samples that had already been taken to measure something else. A Swiss team had used the ice and firn cores to measure carbon dioxide – now the CSIRO team showed how they could be used for measuring other greenhouse gases. These 2000-year records of greenhouse gases are now the benchmark for climate change models.
So with so much of his career tied up with a place that sounds so forbidding, does he actually like Cape Grim? Fortunately, yes. He admits it’s a bit blowy, but thinks its beauty more than compensates for that. And after all, the blowiness comes from its location, and the location provides the purest air in the world, for the best quality samples.
But don’t think Paul’s just brilliant at seeing new ways to use atmospheric samples. He wants to do more. He and his colleagues have been working on establishing the Australian Greenhouse Gas Observing Network. He wants more climate change research in the tropics, arguing that they’re where some of the largest sources (biomass burning) of atmospheric greenhouse gases and their largest sinks are located, but there are no world-class atmospheric chemistry research facilities in the region.
Paul has published nearly 250 research papers and reviews, ten of them in the most prestigious of journals: Nature and Science. His research provides a scientific basis for efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
What got him interested in atmospheric chemistry in the first place? Well, it was the seminal 1974 paper in Nature that showed the significance of stratospheric ozone destruction through halogen catalysis. Observing that ozone destruction and the efforts to stop and remedy it has been a major part of Paul’s life work. In 1995, that paper won its authors (Molina and Rowland, USA) a Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Paul had to wait another 12 years for his brush with a Nobel: he contributed to the reports of the IPCC, which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize (jointly with former US Vice President Al Gore), for assessing, enhancing and disseminating knowledge on climate change science.
That’s alongside several awards from NASA, a Eureka Prize, a CSIRO Lifetime Achievement Award and a raft of others.
Paul retired in 2014, but still continues to work as an Honorary Fellow. It’s that kind of dedication to his science and the important work he’s doing that has made him one of the leaders in his field.
*Update December 2017
CSIRO Honorary Fellow Dr Paul Fraser was awarded the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Award for Scientific Leadership on the occasion of the 30th Anniversary of the Montreal Protocol. Awarded by the Ozone Secretariat of the UN, this award recognises Dr Fraser’s demonstrated extraordinary commitment and contribution to the progress and achievements of the Montreal Protocol. Read more about the awards, individuals and groups that have contributed to the ozone-saving treaty.