May 4-10, 2001
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From the Arctic Circle to Fluvanna, scientist studies nature and ozone
University seeks to raise shields on computers
From the Arctic Circle to Fluvanna, scientist studies nature and ozone
Jose Fuentes
Photo courtesy of Jose Fuentes
Fuentes and an international team of scientists went to Alert, Nanavut, Canada to study the effects of the polar sunrise on ozone.

By Fariss Samarrai

Jose Fuentes has studied the atmosphere from a jungle canopy in Brazil in humid, sticky 105-degree heat. He has studied the atmosphere from the top of the world in the dark Arctic winter on an ice sheet at minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. And he has studied the atmosphere from a forest tower in the Virginia piedmont.

“I’ll go anywhere on the planet to better understand the intricacies of our atmosphere and how it interacts with the Earth,” Fuentes said. “The world’s best laboratory is nature itself.”

Fuentes is an atmospheric scientist in the Department of Environmental Sciences, specializing in deciphering the interplay between the surface — land and water, natural or human-caused — and the atmosphere. This surface/atmosphere interchange has implications on everything from the quality of the air we breathe, to how well trees and plants grow, to how the weather behaves and, ultimately, long-term climate change.

Last winter Fuentes went with an international team of scientists to an ice camp in Alert, Nanavut, Canada, above the Arctic Circle, to study the effects of the polar sunrise on ozone. Ozone is a naturally occurring gas that can be harmful or beneficial to life depending on its quantities and the altitude where it occurs.
“We want to assess the condition of ozone at the Arctic as a piece of the puzzle for understanding the distribution of ozone globally,” Fuentes says.

His team spent three weeks measuring ozone during the dark days of winter. The sun does not rise above the horizon until early March at that latitude. Scientists have recently discovered that the sun’s rays destroy ozone at ground level during those first appearances of sunlight. Understanding this phenomenon could eventually help atmospheric scientists better assess ozone levels globally.

“It’s an amazing privilege to travel to the ends of the Earth and learn about how our planet works,” Fuentes said. “In order to understand the effects we humans are having on the earth and atmosphere, we must understand what nature is doing. We have to get our science right if we are to intelligently manage our environmental problems.”

Fuentes will return to the Arctic again next winter to continue his work.
Much closer to home Fuentes is leading a research project with a group of graduate students at the Department of Environmental Science’s atmospheric research facility in Fluvanna County. Using a 120-foot tower — twice the height of the surrounding trees — they are studying the exchange of energy and gasses between the forest and atmosphere. Studies such as this are important to understanding climate change.

“The atmosphere knows no international boundaries,” Fuentes said. “What happens in one place — air pollution for example — affects other places, and can have long-term impacts. We have to go to the field, gather data and analyze it to understand what is happening to our environment. If our science is good, it will have a positive influence on local and global environmental policies.”


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