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Deploying a Mass Spectrometer 5000 Meters Above Sea Level

The TOFWERK user community is constantly deploying field mass spectrometers for unique and challenging atmospheric measurements. Within this, Dr. Federico Bianchi has carved out a niche: high-altitude measurements of the free troposphere. His deployments of the API-TOF to peaks in Europe and Nepal – coupled to sophisticated chamber experiments at CERN – have produced exciting new insights about the atmosphere and high impact publications.

After noticing photos on Twitter of Federico (@AtmosFede) installing his API-TOF on a Bolivian mountain top, we tracked him down to learn more about his latest scientific adventure.

Interview with Dr. Federico Bianchi- Chacaltaya Gaw Station, Boliva

Hi Fede. Thanks for taking some time away from your field campaign to talk to us. Can you tell us a bit about where you are right now and the team of scientists you are working with?

Hi. First of all, thanks for contacting us and for showing interest in our crazy field campaigns. At the moment we are measuring at Chacaltaya Gaw Station, the highest atmospheric station in the world. It’s located at 5240 meters above sea level on the Chacaltaya mountain on top of the Bolivian Andes. We are a large group of young and motivated scientists from Helsinki University (Dr. Federico Bianchi), Stockholm University (Prof. Claudia Mohr), Innsbruck University (Prof. Armin Hansel),  Paul Schererr Institute (Dr. Rob Modini), University of San Paulo (Prof. Paulo Artaxo), ISAC Bologna (Dr. Angela Marinoni) and the local Universidad Mayor de San Andres (UMSA, our Bolivian partner-Dr. Marcos Andrade).

This is at least your third high-elevation field deployment with a TOFWERK mass spectrometer.  Where else have you made measurements with field mass spectrometers over the past few years?

My first high-altitude measurements were a disaster! They were conducted at the Jungfraujoch station in the heart of the Swiss Alps at 3600 meters above sea level in January and February 2013 during my 2nd year as PhD student at the Paul Scherrer Institute.  As you know very well, the station is sometimes visible from the TOFWERK office in Thun. After the first unsuccessful campaign we needed to go back to improve our measurements, only then, in the following winter, we were able to measure properly aerosol formation in the free troposphere.  After that I have decided to move from the Alps to the Himalaya, and more specifically to the Pyramid station located at 5000 meters (Pyramid International Laboratory/Observatory), 2 hours walking distance from the famous Everest Base Camp in Nepal. The station is reachable only after 7 days of hike.

What are the main questions driving these studies, and what makes the current study unique?

The main scientific question driving these studies is to understand how aerosol is formed at high altitude in the free troposphere. These studies are all unique because for the first time, state-of-the-art instruments are being brought to such remote locations. The instruments we operate at these sites are very new and extremely important for understanding the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

You have also spent a lot of time at CERN over the past few years. Is there a connection between those measurements and these?

Absolutely!!! During my PhD, I spent a big fraction of my time working at CERN on the CLOUD project. In total I am not sure how many nightshifts I have done in Geneva.  The aim of the CLOUD project is to study new particle formation under many different conditions. During that time, I didn’t only learn about this fascinating process but also about general atmospheric chemistry and deploying these advanced mass spectrometers.  These first years were fundamental in shaping my knowledge and thinking. The experiments that I am doing now are just the normal consequence of my previous scientific life. After all it’s our own experiences that shape our present/future actions.

We know that you are an avid mountaineer. Is this a coincidental overlap of scientific and recreational interests, or did you look for scientific questions that would bring you to high elevations?

Coincidence in life is quite rare and it is definitely not the case in my life. While I was studying in CLOUD I realized that we were doing many laboratory experiments trying to simulate what is happening in the atmosphere. However, we were always comparing our findings to measurements that have been taken at low altitude in the planetary boundary layer. We were actually doing experiments at very low temperature (<-60°C) but we could not compare them with ambient observations. That is when I realized that measurements at high altitude are extremely important and that additionally I could combine science with my love for the mountains. Of course, this is not the only important aspect that needs to be studied, but it was definitely what I wanted to investigate.

Do you find some time to enjoy the mountains on these deployments, or is the research all consuming?

Definitely not as much I would like. Every time I am planning a campaign in these special locations, I also plan many extra activities. However, since I am paid for my scientific skills and not my mountaineering activities I must put more effort into the scientific part.  As you can imagine, running scientific instruments in these conditions is not very easy. Therefore, most of my time is dedicated to the instruments.  Despite all of that, I can say that I often find some time for my favorite hobby (mountains). In Nepal, I often went hiking around the Everest base camp, and I climbed some little mountains. In Bolivia, a part of the team found the time to climb the Huayna Potosi. This was my first mountain above 6000 m.

A few weeks ago we saw pictures of a lab you were setting up in China. Can you tell us a bit about that initiative?

At the moment, we are setting up a laboratory at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology. This effort is in collaboration with Prof. Markku Kulmala at Beijing University of Chemical Technology, Fudan University (Dr. Lin Wang), and Tsinghua University (Jingkun Jiang). This is very different than my usual locations for field measurements. However, we all know that the air quality in China is a very important issue. Therefore, setting up a permanent station there is fundamental and extremely needed (despite my love for the mountains).  In the last year we realized also that – while these intensive field campaigns are very important – advanced permanent measurements are the only way to solve very complex problems, such as the haze in China.

How is preparation for a remote field deployment different than preparation for an urban study, like that in China?

Remote field deployments are very challenging. You need to plan everything in advance, keeping in mind that it will be quite difficult, or even impossible to get spare parts. And, any possible delivery of spare parts will be very expensive. One needs to forecast what can go wrong and decide which are the most sensitive parts of the instrument that you are taking. Based on that, one needs to prepare a full set of possible needed parts.  Atmospheric conditions are very harsh, low temperature, snow storm, strong wind and low pressure will make everything very complicated.  Obviously, this is not the case for Beijing where you can have anything you need. However, in both locations the sampling system has to be very carefully thought out. At high altitude you have to make sure that snow storm and freezing will not affect your sampling while in Beijing you have lots of problems with very high pollution, instrument clogging and high humidity in summer that could cause condensation in the line or even inside your instruments.

In a world where funding is unlimited, where would you next propose to take your TOFWERK mass spectrometer and what would it take to get there?

There are many locations that are still unexplored especially if we consider the instrumentation that is now available. I think we need to further explore the free tropospheric air above the ocean – maybe sampling on top of a volcanic island, such as the Canaries or the Reunion Islands. Further, the Arctic and Antarctic are extremely important because of their sensitivity – especially the Arctic – to climate change. Then, there are areas that are totally unexplored, for example the whole of Africa.

Let’s say that if all goes fine I am not going to be bored in the next years!

Again, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. We’d love to have you stop by Thun or Boulder for a hike and beer!

Hikes and beer are always attractive. I bet I’ll see you soon.