If you've noticed the large green laser that shoots 25 kilometres skyward just north of Nesters, don't worry, Whistler is not being invaded by aliens. The beam is part of a light detection and radar station (LIDAR), which is designed to provide information about Whistler's air quality.
Located at the Environment Canada weather station near Nester's Market, the LIDAR station is just one of six in Canada and part of the Canadian Operational Research Aerosol LIDAR Network (CORALNet). The green laser measures aerosols, which are tiny particles suspended in the air. Some occur naturally from volcanoes, dust storms, forest and grassland fires, living vegetation and sea spray, while others result from human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and altering natural surface cover.
Did you know that Whistler's LIDAR station can detect ash from a fire in Ontario? This fun fact helps scientists understand the roles of man-made, locally-produced air pollutants as well as those, which move into the area via meteorological "highways" and their impacts on air quality. Every 10 seconds the LIDAR station provides vertical aerosol profiles from near ground to 25 km into the sky. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week except when it's raining or aircraft fly over the site. The system is operated remotely and the data, which is updated every hour, is publicly available on www.coralnet.ca.
The LIDAR station is important to Whistler because it helps us understand what influences aerosol concentrations in Whistler's atmosphere, whether they are human-made, locally produced air pollutants or those that move in to the area via metrological highways. Readings from the machine helps us better understand how these aerosols impact Whistler's air quality, which allows us to make better decisions in order to protect our quality of life.
What's the big deal about aerosols anyway? Well, aerosols are important to understand for a number of reasons. Polluting aerosols destroy ozone molecules, which deplete the ozone layer that protects us from the harmful effects of the UV rays. Aerosols also affect the earth's climate by interacting with the sun and earth's radiation, by modifying clouds, and by decreasing visibility.
Whistler's LIDAR station is not alone. It's actually connected to a network called CORALNet, which is currently composed of six LIDAR stations. These stations are strategically located at sites across Canada. These sites were chosen to cover the entire country and to maximize the ability to monitor both long-range transport events as well as regional air quality issues. The sites from west to east are Whistler, University of British Columbia, Bratt's Lake, Centre For Atmospheric Research Experiments(Egbert), University of Sherbrooke and Acadia University.
While the green laser continues to collect data, there are plenty of ways to help maintain Whistler's air quality. Watch for the upcoming Idle-Free Whistler campaign, which encourages residents to stop idling their vehicles. For more ways to reduce your impact on air quality, visit www.ec.gc.ca/cleanair-airpu/Taking_Action.
June 28 is Whistler Clean Air Day: walk, ride your bike, carpool or take transit in support of Whistler's clean air. The laser knows if you do.
Want to learn more about Whistler2020? Check out www.whistler2020