shutterstock_1088293697It’s slightly disconcerting when you get to that stage in life where a nine-year-old boy seems to know more about what’s going on in the world than you do. Imagine my delight, then, when not only was I aware of something that he wasn’t, but it related to a 167-meter-long dragon traveling around the arctic.

Xue Long, or “Snow Dragon”, is a polar icebreaker and research vessel operated by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Now approaching 25 years old, she continues to contribute to global scientific understanding through studies of polar ecosystems and marine environments. From July to September this year, Xue Long traveled to the arctic carrying a special cargo: an Ambient Ion Monitoring (AIM) system, which combines Thermo Scientific Dionex ion chromatography systems with URG Corporation’s URG-9000D ambient air sampler.

The AIM has long been deployed at terrestrial sites around the world, where it simultaneously samples particulates and gases in the ambient air and analyses them for the presence of ions. In this role, it has contributed to monitoring potential health impacts of the air we breathe and assisted our understanding of the contribution of various sources of pollution.

Typically, the AIM has been located in sites where low air quality is expected, such as the industrial Northeast of the U.S., or cities such as Xi’an in the PRC. However, poor air quality is not something that we typically associate with polar regions. So why did Xue Long take the AIM system aboard?

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Well, no region of Earth is considered untouched by human activities anymore. Xue Long has also been looking at items such as arctic ocean acidification from atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the pervasive presence of microplastics. With atmospheric and ocean currents dispersing pollutants around the globe, even the arctic is not pristine. Tracing the source of impacts on the polar environment is necessary for mitigation, and this can only be achieved through mapping the spatial distribution of atmospheric pollution.

With climate change, the polar regions are experiencing more rapid temperature increase than the rest of the world. However, the presence of atmospheric ammonia and amines help promote cloud formation, and their measurement is thus of critical importance in forecasting climate impacts. Unfortunately, amines tend to decompose during off-line sampling and storage. The on-line capability of the AIM, along with the industry-leading resolving power of Thermo Scientific Dionex IonPac columns, solves this with high-frequency, high-resolution, accurate data. Especially appreciated by the researchers during their long voyage was the simplicity of operation of the AIM system: minimal maintenance is needed, and only water needs to be added to keep the system running. Despite this simplicity, performance was high, with 27 inorganic anions and cations, carboxylic acids, and amines evaluated every hour for the entire voyage and less than 70 liters of non-toxic, aqueous waste produced over the expedition.

Air pollution continues to increase in importance around the world, and India appears to be the next frontier for tackling urban air pollution (nine of the most polluted cities in the world, as measured by particulate matter, are in India, including Delhi). However, air pollution is not limited to cities, and tackling global challenges requires global monitoring. To keep up with that challenge, keep an eye out for another snow dragon plying the polar waters: Xue Long 2 is due to be launched in 2019!