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CSIRO opens Cape Grim pollution data

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Amid Australia’s acrimonious debate over climate science, the country’s peak science body, CSIRO, has taken the bold step of making 35 years’ worth of atmospheric CO2 data directly available to the public.

It comes in a debate so inflamed that even a call for more reasoned debate was enough to bring death threats directed towards the CEO of the Federation of Australian Science and Technological Societies yesterday. Anna-Maria Arabia was leading a group of 200 scientists who visited the Australian parliament to ask politicians to help fight misinformation in the public debate.

In part, CSIRO hopes that its open publication of the data – which has previously been released through the much slower processes involved in international bodies – can take some heat out of the argument.

“The data are publicly available, with no strings attached and no outside interpretation,” said Dr Paul Fraser of CSIRO. “It’s freeing up the process by which the public has access to this data.”

CSIRO’s data provides records collected at the Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station in Tasmania since 1976. According to Dr Fraser, Cape Grim’s records provide high-quality data for the Southern Hemisphere that covers concentrations of CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, CFC and HFC, perfluorocarbon, and sulfur hexafluoride.

At launch, the site provides the data as graphs, but Dr Fraser said the public will shortly be able to download the raw monthly mean data that the station collects.

Over time, he said, CSIRO plans to extend the release to include “proxy” data such as CO2 concentrations measured from Antarctic ice cores.

Fraser also says the site is able to distinguish between volcanic CO2 and that caused by combustion. “Volcanic CO2 has a certain isotopic signature, which is completely different to that coming from fossil fuels,” he said.

The correlation between CO2 concentration and oxygen concentration is also indicative, he said: when an increase in CO2 is mirrored by a decrease in oxygen concentration, “that’s clearly indicative of a combustion process.”

However, he emphasized that the data release isn’t about CSIRO’s interpretation: anybody who wants to conduct their own analysis can do so, and will be able to discuss their interpretations of the data with scientists.

It’s been a busy week for CSIRO, which on the weekend opened a solar-thermal demonstration site in Newcastle over the weekend. The solar thermal field, tower and research facility will use focused mirrors to heat air to drive its turbines, rather than water – making the technology suitable for a country that suffers from a chronic lack of water.

On the 4,000 square metre demonstration site, incoming fresh air is heated to more than 900 degrees Celsius by 450 heliostats. The hot air then drives a 200kW air turbine in a 30-metre tower.

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