Summer Series Week 6: The laser lady of Lauder


By day Penny Smale is a mum to two young boys, living on a rural property in the middle of a farming district in Central Otago. By night, she leaves home, walks the short distance to what is essentially a large outbuilding in a paddock, and fires lasers into the sky.

The bright blue and green lights of the lasers travel vertically up to 100km into the atmosphere and are visible for miles. The renowned clear Otago skies are far removed from the light and atmospheric pollution produced by towns and cities, which makes the area perfect for her line of work.

NIWA Technician Penny Smale admires the view as the lidar gathers atmospheric data from the upper atmosphere. [Dave Allen, NIWA]

It is here at Lauder – 30 minutes’ drive from Alexandra – that NIWA operates its internationally important atmospheric research station.

The locals have long known what goes on in the domes, spheres and other odd-shaped buildings on the hillside but it must come as a surprise to cyclists on the Otago Rail Trail as the bike past the station.

“They think we look at stars,” says Penny. “But that’s not what we do. While my background is in Antarctic science, I’m a technical assistant and I fire lasers into the sky and use a telescope to measure what comes back.

“Then I send the information to people who calculate how much ozone there is in the atmosphere.”

Lauder specialises in measuring ozone, UV light levels and greenhouse gases and has a wide range of world class instruments. As one of the few atmospheric research centres operating in the Southern Hemisphere, it has a crucial role to play in maintaining measurements that record changes to the global climate.

Penny operates a Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) instrument on behalf of a Dutch research group as part of the Network for the Detection of Stratospheric Change. Lidar emit vertical beams of pulsed laser light. A small fraction of the light is collected by telescope from which concentrations of ozone can be deduced.

“There are two different wavelengths going straight up into the atmosphere. We measure the return signal and based on those return values, scientists can calculate the ozone.”

Ozone is measured in several different ways at Lauder and the data used in scientific papers around the world.

Penny takes measurements several times a month and works about four hours at night. In winter, there’s usually snow underfoot, but the advantage is that she can have a relatively early night. In summer Lauder’s southern location combined with daylight saving means it doesn’t get properly dark until at least 10 pm.

“It’s technical, it’s interesting, it’s fun and you get to do some good work. The best things are the scenery and the isolation – and I get to fire lasers.”

Penny’s husband is also on the staff at Lauder and the family live in a house that is part of the Lauder complex.

“It’s unusual, you’re living here surrounded by farms and people in the district are all farmers so we’re a little bit odd. But we’re living the country life with great scenery and without the work of running a farm. I love it.”

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