Lauder celebrating 50 years of atmospheric research

In 2011 the science community celebrated 50 years of atmospheric research at Lauder.

NIWA's research station at Lauder, in Central Otago, specialises in measuring ozone, UV levels and greenhouse gases, and is home to a team of world class research scientists and instruments. On 28 April 2011, the research station celebrated its 50th anniversary.

The origins of Lauder

The atmospheric problems facing mankind have changed over the years, and so too has the role and function of Lauder.

An important milestone for science in New Zealand was in 1957, International Geophysical Year. As part of this, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research established an upper atmosphere research base near Invercargill at the instigation of R.S. (Bob) Unwin, a physicist who had a scientific background in wartime radar development. The 'blue skies' research carried out focussed on efforts to understand the aurora australis (Southern Lights), and the associated radio aurora, a process where radar waves are backscattered (reflected) from an electrically charged region 100 kilometres above the earth at high latitudes.

A move north

In 1960, as an extension of this programme, a new base was established at Lauder to take advantage of the clear skies for optical observations of the aurora. The radars continued to operate remotely, and were serviced from the Lauder base. Bob Unwin was the first officer in charge. Later in his career he was awarded a DSc for his contribution to research. Radar installations at Bluff, Scott Base, Slope Point and Hobart measured these 'radio aurora' at ranges out to 1200 kilometres across the Southern Ocean. Research based on these data gained international prominence during the ensuing years.

The data were important not only from a purely scientific viewpoint, but also because they reflected changes in the ionosphere, an electrically charged region above the earth. This region is responsible for the reflection of high frequency radio waves, which before the advent of satellites provided the only form of global communications, apart from submarine cables. Disruptions to the ionosphere took place during magnetic storms, heralded by solar flares on the sun.

Because knowledge of the magnetic field was also important for navigation purposes, New Zealand had an international obligation to contribute data from ionospheric and magnetic research to a global data base.

Instruments at Lauder included spectrographs and photometers, used to study the emissions from various gases in the upper atmosphere, and all–sky cameras. The instruments were initially housed in a converted GMC truck known as 'the Dog Box'. Data was also analysed from similar instruments sited at Scott Base and Halley Bay in the Antarctic, and on Campbell Island.

As well as the optical equipment, instruments were set up to measure changes in the magnetic field, and to measure electrical currents in the earth that flowed during magnetic storms. A radio receiver also recorded very low frequency (VLF) radio waves known as 'whistlers', the name coming from the decreasing pitch audio signal received, created by charged particles from the sun spiralling down the earth's magnetic field lines.

The first stargazers at Lauder

Back in the sixties, locals knew the scientists as 'stargazers'. These stargazers, with their can-do Kiwi attitude and plenty of Number 8 wire, were housed in simple wooden huts. Lauder later moved to more permanent buildings.

Scientific satellite studies

Canada was one of the first three countries to build its own satellite. The Alouette/Isis series of satellites of the 1960s had insufficient on-board data storage facilities; and had to transmit data to ground stations. Lauder was chosen as one of these.

The stargazers manned recording instruments though the night. The data was recorded to tape, sent to Canada, and shared with New Zealand and international research groups.

Lower in the atmosphere, and ozone

In the late 1970s, A W Harrison, a Canadian scientist, visited Lauder. His interest was in measuring atmospheric nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels. This interest was stimulated by a fear that a planned fleet of supersonic aircraft would emit NO2, which would destroy ozone. Harrison sparked Lauder scientists' interest in stratospheric research.

A renewed interest in Antarctic atmospheric science began in 1982 with the installation at Arrival Heights of a system to measure stratospheric nitrogen dioxide. About five years later, in 1985, the ozone hole was discovered. Lauder was well placed to contribute to research into the causes and effects of ozone depletion and began measuring NO2, ozone, UV radiation, and trace gases associated with ozone depletion.

This research continued, not only at Lauder, but also in Antarctica, Pole Station, Halley Bay, Campbell Island, and elsewhere in the world.

Aerosol, cloud, and radiation research

In June 1991, the second largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century took place on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines, at Mt Pinatubo. Millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide were discharged into the atmosphere, resulting in a worldwide decrease in temperature over the next few years.

This huge volcanic event provided further stimulus for aerosol (small particles), cloud, and radiation research. This research at Lauder contributed to our understanding of the relatively high levels of UV radiation in New Zealand, and gave impetus to creation of tools for calibrations and solar energy.

International Network for Detection of Atmospheric Composition Change (NDACC)
In 1991, Lauder was appointed one of five sites for the international Network for the Detection of Stratospheric Change (NDSC).

Today, it is one of five primary sites for its successor the international Network for Detection of Atmospheric Composition Change (NDACC). Its purpose is to observe and understand the physical and chemical state of the stratosphere and upper troposphere, and to assess the impact of stratosphere changes on the underlying troposphere and on global climate.

Consequently, Lauder has some of the best instruments in the world for atmospheric research. Several of these state-of-the-art instruments are operated in collaboration with overseas partners.

Lauder now measures most of the gases that contribute to climate change.

Applied Science

NIWA has become much more commercially oriented in recent years, with increased emphasis on services for industry and other research organisations. For example, several spectrometer systems to measure UV, developed at Lauder, have been sold to international clients, like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in USA, and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. NIWA has ongoing contracts for their maintenance.

NIWA now has stronger interactions with the health sector, addressing issues associated with too much UV in summer or too little UV in winter.

Lauder performs calibrations of radiation sensors for NIWA and other commercial clients including overseas manufacturers and research agencies.

Lauder is moving towards doing more computer-based modelling to complement the measurement programs it has been performing in one way or another for the last 50 years.

As climate becomes more of a pressing issue, the work Lauder does is invaluable. In the next fifty years this work will only become more important.

You can see photos from 50 years of research at Lauder in this photo gallery. 

NIWA Lauder photo gallery

For comment, contact:

For information about the early years

Gordon Keys
Tel: 03 448 7661

For information about the later years


Emeritus Researcher – Atmospheric Radiation
The official opening of Lauder 1961: Bob Unwin discusses auroral all sky camera measurements. From left: W M Hamilton (Director General DSIR), Mrs J George, Hon G George (MP for Otago), RS Unwin (Officer – in charge). [NIWA]