Scientists in Germany are trying to fill in the gaps in the current understanding of climate change.
Physicist at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, Bernadette Rosati, told euronews: “Most people think climate change means global warming, but climate change can also mean the opposite.”
Dr Thomas F. Mentel a leading physicist at Germany’s Jülich Institute said: “We have basically focused on reducing air pollution for a long time, but it seems climate change is much more complex than that alone.”
The Institute’s Dr Mikael Ehn added: “There is quite a bit known. But also many things that we know that we don´t know well enough.”
The scientists, from a European Union research project, want to understand the relationship between atmospheric pollutants and climate change.
So they got themselves a zeppelin.
Mentel went on: “The most important layer of the atmosphere is the lowest two kilometres. That is where we live, where the vegetation is, and where most emissions go. The majority of measurements in that part of the atmosphere are normally done from the ground. We could also use planes. But planes fly high and very fast. The zeppelin is slow moving – maybe 50 km/h – and we can explore from a stable, vibration-free platform, all levels up to 2000 metres.”
The zeppelin has been loaded with heavy equipment, specially designed to absorb and analyse aerosols, tiny chemical particles that float in the atmosphere.
They can be natural or man-made, and researchers know that they contribute to changing the pattern of our climate.
But how they do it is still far from clear.
“One example is sulphur dioxide emissions. For a long time, the aim was to reduce sulphur dioxide because it contributed to “acid rain”, and we have been successful here in Europe and also in America in reducing these emissions,” Dr Mentel told euronews. “At the same time, SO2 is an important precursor of aerosols. We know that aerosols affect cloud formation and by doing so they can contribute to the cooling of the atmosphere. So by reducing sulphate-aerosols we run the risk of suppressing an effect which actually works against climate warming.”
Scientists use test flights to check that their equipment will work properly under real research conditions.
“The zeppelin flies at a few hundred metres above the forest at different altitudes, because it is important to see how the instruments work at different air pressures,” Dr Mentel explained.
The zepellin will cross Europe overflying countries from north to south in three different stages.
The team will collect samples over various landscapes and environments, analysing aerosol particles of differing sizes and properties at several altitudes, pressures and temperatures.
The scientists are particularly interested in what they call “the detergent of the atmosphere”, a natural chemical compound that triggers the degradation of pollutants and improves air quality.