Tech to Turn Over Atmospheric Station to the Azores

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

A tiny observatory in the middle of the North Atlantic will soon change hands, a move that the players say could enhance global atmospheric science for years to come.

The PICO-NARE observatory, owned by Michigan Technological University, is located at the summit of Pico Mountain, the highest place on Pico Island and also the highest place for miles around, until you reach North America or Europe.

Pico Island is located in the Azores, a remote archipelago that is part of Portugal. As the only islands in the region distant from any continent, the misty Azores are an important site for scientists studying the pristine atmosphere above the North Atlantic, especially so since PICO-NARE was lowered by helicopter in 2001 onto its mountaintop home.

The station is the brainchild of Richard Honrath, an atmospheric scientist in Michigan Tech's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. With Paulo Fialho of the University of the Azores, he organized its construction with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

His goal was to gather information on pollutants drifting across the Atlantic from industrial centers in the U.S. and Canada. While the Azores are perfectly situated for such studies, they pose one problem: at lower altitudes, up to about 1,000 meters, or 3,300 feet, the ocean scrubs the atmosphere clean, so detecting the drift of pollutants can be extremely difficult.

At an elevation of 2,225 meters, PICO-NARE (stands for Pico International atmospheric Chemistry Observatory-North Atlantic Regional Experiment) sits on the only spot in the Azores where the air is high enough to escape the effects of the ocean environment.

For the last five years, scientists have used the station to gather reams of data on pollutants floating over the Azores, among them ozone, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.

"I'm really impressed with what Richard and his co-workers have done up there,' said NOAA research chemist David Parrish. "It's a really exciting site, but it's on a steep mountain with no roads and no electrical power. It took someone brave and resourceful to take measurements up there, and I don't think anyone could have pulled it off except Richard."

PICO-NARE scientists are studying pollution from manmade sources and major forest fires in the U.S., Canada and Siberia. One unexpected finding has been that forest fires pour more of the greenhouse gas carbon monoxide into the atmosphere than America's entire northeastern industrial complex.

"It was a surprise to me how important forest fire plumes are in affecting the atmospheric chemistry of the North Atlantic," Parrish said.

All that science was about to end last year because the money was running out. "We fund short-term projects," explained Kea Duckenfield, a visiting scientist with the Atmospheric Composition and Climate division of NOAA's Climate Program Office. "It's surprisingly difficult to find support for ongoing operations, even for something as valuable as this."

"PICO-NARE has been a great station," she added. "It's a totally different beast because of its elevation. It's been a very important point for collecting data for the last five years, and without funding from NOAA, that would have ended."

Then Michigan Tech's Honrath found a way to make the science live on. He is saving the station by giving it away.

On June 29, Michigan Tech will officially hand over PICO-NARE's keys to the University of the Azores, which will operate the facility with support from the Regional Government of the Azores in cooperation with the Portuguese Institute of Meteorology. Eventually, the station could become part of the Global Atmospheric Watch, a United Nations-sponsored network of more than 20 observatories worldwide that provide high-quality atmospheric data to the scientific community.

The Azores are already a hub of activity for scientists interested in the marine environment and volcanology (Pico Island is a dormant volcano) because of its location. Thus, PICO-NARE fits in very well with the area's existing research efforts, said Kristian Moore, vice consul at the U.S. Consulate in the Azores. "This is an example of the ongoing, productive partnership between the U.S., the Regional Government of the Azores and Portugal," he said. "The station has been producing excellent results, and keeping it going ties in with the Regional Government's wish to advance science and technology in the region."

Ironically, the transfer of the station to the University of the Azores means that research projects funded by NOAA and other organizations can continue unabated.

"It would have been a terrible shame to tear PICO-NARE down," said Duckenfield, at NOAA. "But this new arrangement gives it even more standing and legitimacy, and it will let us continue to watch the Earth and learn even more."

More information on PICO-NARE is available at

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.