In the environment, big data can be used to discover new resources, and monitor the health of the resources we rely on, such as clean water and air. ANSTO is at the forefront of big data analysis and precision modelling in environmental studies at both national and international scales.
Particle accelerators are used to analyse samples at a molecular level with extremely high precision. At ANSTO, they have been integral to identifying a potential water source in the Pilbara area in northern WA, as well as measuring air quality in Australian and Asian cities.
Despite its remoteness, the Pilbara contains major export centres, such as Port Hedland, which rely heavily on sustainable use of water. In March 2014, ANSTO’s Isotopes for Water project released the results of their investigation into water quality, sustainability and the age of groundwater in the arid Pilbara region, to determine its viability as a future water resource to support the growth of the area.
“A large, potentially sustainable resource was verified by using nuclear techniques,” explains Dr Karina Meredith of ANSTO, who leads the project investigating water sources. “The outcome of this seven-year study provides a greater degree of certainty of water supply for the Pilbara.”
By calculating the age of water, ANSTO researchers can determine whether it can be drawn off sustainably, and where replacement (known as ‘recharging’) will be sufficient to maintain reservoir levels. Levels of carbon-14 in groundwater decay naturally over time, and by measuring minute traces of this radiocarbon in the groundwater with ANSTO’s STAR accelerator, scientists like Meredith can tell how old the water is. “We’ve found it’s about 5000 years old, and what was really interesting is that one of the areas had waters that were approximately 40,000 years old,” says Meredith.
Her calculations show it will be OK to drink the 5000-year-old water, as the reservoir is sufficiently recharged by water from cyclones. The 40,000-year-old vintage won’t be flowing through kitchen taps, however, as this region isn’t recharged fast enough, she says.
For more than a decade, Dr David Cohen of ANSTO has used the same accelerators to track down the sources of fine particle air pollution in Australian and Asian cities. Air pollution particles come in different sizes, but fine particles are the most damaging to human health – they penetrate deep into the lungs and have been linked to cardiovascular disease.
Cohen is the data coordinator of an international study of fine particle air pollution that takes samples in cities across 15 countries in Asia and Australasia. Combining the fingerprints detected using STAR with wind back trajectories, he’s shown that the air in Hanoi, for example, can contain dust from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and pollution from Chinese coal-fired power stations some 500–1500 km away.
In addition, to reveal the sources of air pollution nationally, Cohen’s team has recently completed a study of the Upper Hunter region of NSW, which found significant fingerprints from domestic wood burning.
“In winter, up to 80% of the fine particles were coming from wood,” says Cohen. “So the most effective way to reduce winter air pollution would be to regulate burning wood.”