York opens a new facility for air quality research

York University’s Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science (CRESS) opened the Gordon G. Shepherd Atmospheric Research Facility on Monday. The facility includes three laboratories, two of which are equipped with special roof hatches that allow researchers to test new instruments while measuring the properties of the sky all year, expanding their work in analyzing and modeling air quality in the lower atmosphere.

Named in honour of York University Professor Emeritus Gordon G. Shepherd ‘s prodigious research achievements in earth and space science, the facility provides researchers with state-of-the-art laboratory space to develop new instrumentation for assessing the impact of human activity on the atmosphere, which can affect air quality, climate change and weather patterns. Tested locally in Ontario, this key research instrumentation includes dials, lidars (laser-based instrumentation) sunphotometers and spectrometers which are used in internationally-based field experiments to track and measure ozone and particulate matter caused by regional and global air pollution.

Left: York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri (left) with Gordon Shepherd 

"This laboratory brings all of York’s atmospheric scientists under one roof," said York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri, speaking at the facility opening. "CRESS researchers are renowned for their ground-breaking research in atmospheric science, and now they will have the facilities to sustain York’s place as a leading Canadian institution in this area.

"I am delighted to have the opportunity to honour Dr. Shepherd with this new facility dedicated in his name," said Shoukri. "Dr. Shepherd helped lead the centre to its terrific achievements. This research area is gaining increasing importance as the world turns its attention to environmental issues."

A renowned space researcher and pioneer in Canadian atmospheric research, Shepherd was a co-investigator for the Canadian Ultra Violet Imager launched on the Swedish Viking satellite in 1986, and principal investigator for the WIND Imaging Interferometer launched on the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite in 1991. Appointed director of CRESS in 1995, Shepherd is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Aeronautics & Space Institute and the International Astronautical Federation. He received the Canadian Space Agency’s John H. Chapman Award for Excellence in 2003 and the Canadian Aeronautics & Space Institute’s Alouette Award in 2004.

"I am overwhelmed, very happy and humbled," said Shepherd. "As honours go, this is the best of the best for there is no greater tribute than to be honoured by peers and graduate students. I thank them and my research colleagues."

Shepherd paid tribute to his colleagues Ralph Nicholls, York Distinguished Research Professor emeritus (physics), and Jack McConnell, the new facility”s principal investigator and professor of atmospheric science in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering. "It was Jack’s vision that brought us to where we are today and Ralph Nicholls who built a Petrie Building strong enough to support a fourth level," said Shepherd.

The new facility will play a leading role in global efforts to understand the effects of particulate matter and air pollution. Whether generated by fossil fuel emissions, Boreal forest fires in the Yukon or Colorado, or monsoons in South Asia, airborne particulates are posing an increasing health hazard to humans while potentially contributing to cloud modification. Lidar equipment has been used to study large convective storms, known as hectors, and the delivery of water vapour to the upper troposphere where it can form heat-trapping cirrus clouds and impact climate.

Right: Particulate matter from the Great Sahara Desert in the atmosphere over the Canary Islands

"While some of these particles have declined locally in absolute quantity over the last 40 years, the problem is arguably worse," said McConnell. "The way diesel fuels are burned produces fewer visible particles than similar processes 20 years ago, but the particles are now smaller, harder to detect and able to penetrate deeper into the lungs since they cannot be as easily filtered by bodily membranes, such as those in the nose."

This type of research is especially applicable to the future air quality of the Arctic. "As the Arctic ice continues to melt and it becomes possible for tanker ships to travel between the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean during summer, we expect to see a large rise in air pollution, nitrogen oxides, ozone and particulates there," said McConnell. "Tankers are essentially small towns on the move in terms of their pollution output; when absorbed by the snow, the particulate soot they produce reflects less sunlight and can accelerate the rate at which ice melts."

McConnell and his colleagues noted a similar trend in northern Norway last year. "Due to spring rains, European farmers delayed burning off their fields longer than usual," he said. "The particles produced by those fires were carried north and had a significant impact on air quality in the Arctic and Norway in particular, producing a darker colour in the snow."

"Government investment in research infrastructure and equipment is essential to sustain globally competitive research programs while attracting and retaining the best researchers and students," said Stan Shapson, vice-president research & innovation at York. "This new facility builds on CRESS’s and the Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry’s combined strengths, and positions York as a leading centre for atmospheric and air quality research in Canada."

Development of the facility is supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the Ontario Innovation Trust (OIT), in partnership with York University and other industrial partners.

Right: From left, Suzanne Corbeil (CFI) and David Bogart (OIT) at the opening of the Gordon G. Shepherd Atmospheric Research Facility

"York University can be proud of its position as one of Canada’s lead institutions for research in climate and atmospheric sciences; over the past six years, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences has invested $9.6 million in research based at the University – 15 projects and two research networks," said Dawn Conway, executive director, Canadian Foundation for Climate & Atmospheric Sciences. "I know the new facility will be a key laboratory for excellent ongoing and future research and training."

Founded in 1965, York’s Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science promotes, enhances and facilitates collaborative, interdisciplinary research in astronomy and astrophysics, atmospheric dynamics, chemical physics, geodynamics, geomatics, remote sensing, the space environment and robotics. Its members include faculty from the departments of Earth and Space Science & Engineering; Engineering; Chemistry; Computer Science & Engineering; and Physics & Astronomy.