Wildlife photographer and pollution scientists – Not that different after all
To describe the correct sampling of pollutants in the environment is difficult and probably not the most interesting thing to read neither. However, if you think of pollutants as animal species and us scientist as a wildlife photographer this makes it much better. And while at first glance maybe not the most obvious comparison, animals and pollutants are actually very much alike. A very good example is the jaguar. Jaguars, which are one of the few big cat species on our planet, are very beautiful and fascinating creatures. While formerly roaming in entire South America they can today just be found in small numbers in very remote regions. Due to their camouflage like fur color (orange with black dots) they can move through the jungle almost unseen and wait for the right moment to attack their unprepared pray.
Many of these characteristic also apply to persistent organic pollutants (POP), which are an important class of pollutants due to their persistence in nature and high toxicity. Just as jaguars these POPs can only be found in tiny amounts in remote regions, preferably the North Pole and High Altitude regions. Another similarity both share is their well-hidden movement through nature. Therefore, the presence of POP in the Arctic and at high altitudes has been unknown for a long time, despite the fact that they lead to detrimental health effects for the humans living in the Polar Regions and also wildlife. This shows that to successfully “hunt pollutants down” in nature a vast knowledge on their behavior and favored spots in the environment is required.
The work of scientists is hence very similar towards the work of a wildlife photographer that wants to take a photo of a jaguar that is creeping through the jungle. Also the actual process of capturing the amount of pollutants present in for example a lake can be very similar to the process of taking a photo. One method applied within P³ to measure the amount of different pollutants within a lake is called “active sampling”. Thereby, a certain amount of lake water gets pumped through a filter, where the pollutants are retained while the water passes through.
After active sampling, the filters can be brought to the lab, analyzed and transferred into a picture. This picture is of course not as pretty as the picture of a jaguar, but contains the information necessary to find out which pollutants are present and in which amounts. However, until recently the heavy pump made this method very difficult to apply in remote regions, which includes high altitude regions. To overcome this problem a new invention has been made at the UFZ-Leipzig: All components of an active sampler were modified and optimized in a way that they now fit on a carrying system with dimensions similar to a backpack (a heavy one still). Due to its futuristic look this backpack has already earned itself the nickname “ghostbuster”. Currently, the device is still in the try-out phase. However, in the future it will hopefully help to create a better picture of the pollution of lakes at high altitudes.