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The unsung scientific heroes of Maldives

Mariyam Malsa
21 October 2019, MVT 12:59
Hanimaadhoo Meteorological Office and Climate Observatory. VIDEO: HAWWA AMAANY ABDULLA
Mariyam Malsa
21 October 2019, MVT 12:59

Unbeknownst to most Maldivians, the country’s scientific heroes regularly collect and transfer crucial data right in their backyard from state-of-the-art facilities, one of which is of national significance while the other is counted among South Asia’s most prominent research centres.

Located in the north of the country in Haa Dhaalu Atoll, Maldives Climate Observatory Hanimaadhoo (MCOH) dedicates itself to researching transboundary air pollution and how emissions in certain regions of the world impact countries in another.

A stone’s throw away is Hanimaadhoo Meteorological Office, which has partly borne responsibility for recording and measuring local climate statistics since October 1990.

Hanimaadhoo Meteorological Office. PHOTO: HAWWA AMAANY ABDULLA/ THE EDITION

The origins of MCOH lay with the Indian Ocean Experiment (INDOEX) conducted in 1998. To the alarm of several scientists attached to the experiment, the results uncovered the existence of an atmospheric hazeline above Maldives.

The subsequent necessity of further research resulted in the foundation of MCOH in October 2004, with funding from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Since its inception, MCOH has conducted invaluable research into what is now known as the Atmospheric Brown Cloud, under the watchful eyes of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and an international team of scientists organized by the UNEP’s Atmospheric Brown Cloud initiative.

Dubbed South Asia’s Super Observatory, MCOH is linked to a supplementary observatory on the island of Gan in Addu Atoll, a larger facility in Busan, South Korea, as well as another supplementary observatory in Bhola, Bangladesh.

An observatory that never sleeps

Fittingly, as MCOH is involved in the study of a wide variety of atmospheric pollutants, the instruments needed to carry out thorough research are correspondingly impressive and of considerable quantity.

These equipments range from instruments concerned with overarching factors such as the Condensation Particle Counter (CPC) which identifies the total number of aerosol particles, and the Nephelometer which measures the physical properties of aerosols, to the Aethalometre which measures black carbon concentration measures.

The flow of data at the observatory is constant; instruments transmit data at set intervals of a certain number of seconds or minutes. It would not be an overestimation to say that there is not a single moment when MCOH is inactive.

The Aerosol room in Hanimaadhoo Climate Observatory. PHOTO: HAWWA AMAANY ABDULLA/ THE EDITION

Although most the observatory’s instruments are located indoors, within the Aerosol Room, samples are sourced from atop an 18-metre tower on the MCOH premises.

While the instruments themselves are designed to automatically shut off and halt collecting data in the event of wind interference, the inlet pipes’ location above even the tallest trees in the area eliminates the risk of local pollution interfering with the findings.

In a bid to further increase security, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development established a buffer zone around the observatory. Any activity which could produce smoke is strictly prohibited within 500 metres of the observatory.

Additional instruments placed on the tower aid the conduct of research into radiation and rain chemistry.

Further evidence of the strength of MCOH's research and development work is the relationships the institution maintains with influential and nameworthy scientific bodies across the world, including National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Indian Institute of Science and Stockholm University.

Crucial components of necessary networks

Hanimaadhoo Meteorological Office is one of the five centres across Maldives which form the Maldives Meteorological Service (MMS).

The remainder of the centres are located in Kadhdhoo in Laamu Atoll, Kaadedhdhoo in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll, Gan in Addu Atoll, and Hulhule’ in Kaafu Atoll.

Data is regularly transferred to the station in Hulhule’, which is designated as the main headquarters of the Maldives meteorological network.

In addition to these stations, there are 20 automated weather stations and three tide gauges installed across the country, which provide real-time data to MMS.

Although established in 1990, the meteorological office began uninterrupted data transmissions in November 2007. Currently, meteorological observations are carried out around the clock, similar to the manner MCOH operates.

The range of instruments installed at the site includes a maximum and minimum thermometer, a wind vane, a rain gauge, a sunshine recorder, a barometer, etc. A tide gauge designed to monitor real-time tide data is also located in Hanimaadhoo.

A sunshine recorder at Hanimaadhoo Meteorological Office. PHOTO: HAWWA AMAANY ABDULLA/ THE EDITION

Notably, the station in Hanimaadhoo also plays a role in providing warnings for Maldives regarding earthquakes and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.

After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the German Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System (GITEWS) project saw the installation of a broadband seismometer in Hanimaadhoo and Kaadedhdhoo. Seismic data collected from these stations are transferred to the main hub located in Jakarta, Indonesia, via satellite antenna.

An international issue with local implications; the Brown Cloud

Initially called the Asian Brown Cloud, the haze line above Maldives was renamed the Atmospheric Brown Cloud (ABC) after it was discovered that several other continents had similar layers of pollution.

The haze line consists of a range of airborne particles and pollutants originating from biomass burning, industrial processes and combustion. Several studies have linked the phenomena to an increased incidence of respiratory diseases.

Speaking about the haze line above Maldives, MCOH technician Sharafulla Thoha confirmed that emissions from the Middle East, Africa and other regions of South Asia were proven to have reached the Maldives.

Sharafulla added that the numerous measures taken to prevent local interference guaranteed that the pollution was most definitely transboundary.

“Why should Maldivians be victims. Why should Maldivians suffer as a result of the actions of others”, he stated, expressing concern over the transboundary pollution which is often exacerbated by local factors such as congestion.

According to eight months of compression research conducted by MCOH and EPA in 2014, levels of PM 2.5 in the Male’ region exceeded WHO standards. While marked increases are observed during the Northeast monsoon (November to April), air quality still does not satisfy WHO safety levels in the Southwest monsoon (May to September).

Visions and hopes for the future

The efforts of both Hanimaadhoo-based research facilities are undoubtedly crucial at a national level.

Sharafulla, in particular, noted that the presence of research facilities in Maldives itself lent greater weight to the country’s position in international climate science.

As such, he revealed that local science teams had taken their findings and recommendations to international platforms such as the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), known commonly as the COP summits.

While MCOH findings confirm that the country is impacted by the global climate crisis, Sharafulla passionately opined that Maldives and its inhabitants needed to play a greater global role in climate advocacy.

Furthermore, he expressed hopes of more Maldivians joining the invaluable efforts of data collection and research in Hanimaadhoo.

Although unsung, the dedicated individuals at MCOH and the meteorological office are nonetheless heroes for their tireless contributions to pollution research, meteorological monitoring and disaster prevention.

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