Meet Carolina: Zooming in on sulfur dioxide

Hi everybody, my name is Carolina. Since recently, I am a Ph.D. student in the workgroup “Radical measurements” of Hartwig Harder in the atmospheric chemistry department at Max-Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz.

The climate crisis concerns me a lot. In order to limit and adapt to the environmental consequences, I want to know how our climate system works and understand the underlying processes. I did my Bachelor in Physics at the RWTH Aachen and my Master at the University of Heidelberg, where I specialized in Environmental Physics. In my master’s thesis, I quantified urban emissions of the important greenhouse gas methane by performing mobile measurements at sources like wastewater treatment plants.

My focus area is the atmosphere. I find it very fascinating because very small changes in trace gas concentration can have a huge impact on atmospheric chemistry and climate. For instance, the trace gas sulfur dioxide (SO2) is an important precursor of particle and cloud formation and hence impacts the earth’s radiation balance. On the other hand, excessive concentrations of SO2 in the atmosphere may lead to acidic rain, which is harmful to plants, insects and also human health. The major source of SO2 is anthropogenic fossil fuel combustion. Naturally, SO2 is emitted from volcanoes, biomass burning or oxidation of organic materials, amongst others.

The aim of my Ph.D. project is to develop a novel instrument to measure SO2 in the atmosphere based on laser-induced fluorescence (LIF). We will deploy the instrument onboard the research airplane HALO flying above the Amazonian rainforest. In addition, we will use it to measure on the ground. This will allow us to determine the total sulfur fluxes between the rainforest and the atmosphere.

Carolina with laser protection glasses in the lab, where she began developing her instrument. © Carolina Nelson / MPI-C
Carolina with laser protection glasses in the lab, where she began developing her instrument. © Carolina Nelson / MPI-C

What I admire very much in my research area is that we do not only perform measurements in the lab but also work in the field. I am looking forward to exploring this very special place in the Amazonian rainforest. Since I just started recently I have not yet been at the ATTO site. But I already took part in the preparation training which made me even more excited to go there.