Characterising terrestrial influences on Antarctic air masses using

Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 9903–9916, 2014
© Author(s) 2014. CC Attribution 3.0 License.
Characterising terrestrial influences on Antarctic air masses using
Radon-222 measurements at King George Island
S. D. Chambers1 , S.-B. Hong2 , A. G. Williams1 , J. Crawford1 , A. D. Griffiths1 , and S.-J. Park2
1 Australian
2 Korea
Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Locked Bag 2001, Kirrawee DC NSW 2232, Australia
Polar Research Institute, 26 Songdomirae-ro, Yeonsu-gu, Incheon, 406-840, Korea
Correspondence to: S. D. Chambers ([email protected])
Received: 1 April 2014 – Published in Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss.: 8 May 2014
Revised: 7 July 2014 – Accepted: 22 August 2014 – Published: 18 September 2014
Abstract. We report on one year of high-precision direct
hourly radon observations at King Sejong Station (King
George Island) beginning in February 2013. Findings are
compared with historic and ongoing radon measurements
from other Antarctic sites. Monthly median concentrations
reduced from 72 mBq m−3 in late-summer to 44 mBq m−3
in late winter and early spring. Monthly 10th percentiles,
ranging from 29 to 49 mBq m−3 , were typical of oceanic
baseline values. Diurnal cycles were rarely evident and local influences were minor, consistent with regional radon
flux estimates one tenth of the global average for ice-free
land. The predominant fetch region for terrestrially influenced air masses was South America (47–53◦ S), with minor influences also attributed to aged Australian air masses
and local sources. Plume dilution factors of 2.8–4.0 were estimated for the most terrestrially influenced (South American) air masses, and a seasonal cycle in terrestrial influence
on tropospheric air descending at the pole was identified and
1 Introduction
Due to the comparatively low land fraction, population density, and industrial activity in the Southern Hemisphere,
Antarctic air masses are the least anthropogenically influenced in the global atmosphere (e.g. Jones et al., 2008;
Helmig et al., 2007; Illic et al., 2005; Wolff et al., 1998;
Pereira, 1990), and interpretation of trace impurities in
Antarctic ice cores has become a popular window through
which to view past global climate. To do this, however, requires a solid understanding of the transport and fate of trace
elements to this region. Furthermore, since the climate and
ecology of Antarctica is highly sensitive to anthropogenic influence (e.g. Steig and Orsi, 2013; Heffernan, 2012; Pereira
et al., 2006), there is growing interest in quantifying the magnitude and source regions of pollutants affecting this pristine
region (e.g. Jones et al., 2008; Pereira et al., 2004; Jacobi
et al., 2000; Berresheim and Eisele, 1998). In turn, anthropogenically driven changes to Antarctic climate and ecosystems have the potential to feedback to the global climate system, due to the significant role that Antarctica plays in largescale atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns.
In addition to the direct transport of pollutants in the atmospheric boundary layer, measured concentrations of trace
species in Antarctica are influenced by both local sources and
a variety of in situ natural chemical processes that have yet
to be completely characterised, driven by the extreme seasonal contrasts in sunlight and temperature (e.g. Crawford et
al., 2001; Davis et al., 2001, 2004; Oncley et al. 2004; Jones
et al., 2008). Furthermore, the precise role that global circulation patterns play in the seasonal cycles of some trace
species in Antarctica continues to challenge the global modelling community (Zhang et al., 2011, 2008; Josse et al.,
2004; Taguchi et al., 2002; Heinmann et al., 1990).
Continuous measurements of a terrestrial tracer with uncomplicated source/sink mechanisms, such as Radon-222
(radon), employed in conjunction with back-trajectory analyses and meteorological observations, provide an unambiguous means of distinguishing boundary layer air masses containing a significant remote terrestrial influence (potentially
polluted) from those which have been influenced only by natural oceanic and local processes. Together, they also provide
a convenient means by which to estimate the dilution of ter-
Published by Copernicus Publications on behalf of the European Geosciences Union.
S. D. Chambers et al.: Characterising terrestrial influences on Antarctic air masses
Table 1. Summary of previous radon observations in the Antarctic.
Measurement resolution
Lockhart (1960)
Indirect (by progeny)
Daily (16:00–16:00 LST)
Lockhart et al. (1966)
Indirect (by progeny)
Lambert et al. (1970)
Wilkniss et al. (1974)
Indirect (by progeny)
Indirect (by progeny)
2 hourly
2 hourly
Maenhaut et al. (1979)
Polian et al. (1986)
Indirect (by progeny)
Indirect (by progeny)
Once daily 09:00–10:00 LST
2 hourly
Heimann et al. (1990)
Pereira (1990);
Pereira et al. (2004);
Pereira et al. (2006)
Wyputta (1997)
Indirect (by progeny)
Direct (electrostatic deposition)
see Polian et al. (1986).
Daily and 2 hourly
Little America V, Apr 1956 to Oct 1958.
South Pole, Feb 1959 to Apr 1960.
Little America, Apr 1956 to Oct 1958.
South Pole 1959 to 1963.
Reports mean radon from other Antarctic sites: 8–
163 mBq m−3 .
Dumont d’Urville 1967 – ongoing.
40 day ocean cruise to McMurdo, Antarctica Nov–
Dec 1972.
South Pole, two summers (1973–74 and 1974–5).
Dumont d’Urville 1960–1975; also report Mawson averages.
Dumont d’Urville.
Ferraz station, 1986 – ongoing.
Indirect (by progeny)
Georg-von-Neumayer station, 1984–1989.
Gros et al. (1998)
Indirect (by progeny)
Ocean cruise (44–77◦ S), summer, 1993.
Ui et al. (1998)
Whittlestone and Zahorowski (2000)
Taguchi et al. (2002)
Tositti et al. (2002)
Direct (electrostatic deposition)
Direct (two filter)
Indirect (by progeny)
Direct (electrostatic deposition)
1–2 obs. day−1
2 h integration
1–2 hourly
Josse et al. (2004)
Ilic et al. (2005)
Indirect (via progeny)
Various methods
see Polian et al. (1986)
Zhang et al. (2008)
Zhang et al. (2011)
Indirect (by progeny)
Direct (two filter) at Mawson,
others indirect (by progeny)
Direct (electrostatic deposition)
Indirect (by progeny)
see Heimann et al. (1990)
see Wittlestone and Zahorowski (2000);
and Heimann et al. (1990)
10 min
3 hourly
Taguchi et al. (2013)
Weller et al. (2013)
restrially influenced air masses en route to the point of measurement. With such tools, the sources of precursor species
in the Antarctic atmosphere can be better characterised, and
deposition processes better understood.
Atmospheric radon measurements have been reported for
Antarctic regions for over 5 decades (Table 1). “Indirect”
measurements, based on the collection and counting of radon
progeny, have been the most common, but require an assumption of equilibrium between radon gas and its aerosol
progeny. This assumption is generally considered to be valid
for sites that are a significant distance from the radon’s terrestrial source, if weather conditions are fairly calm en route,
but is likely to fail for precipitating air masses and severe seastates. Of the “direct” techniques, electrostatic deposition has
been the most common. However, for short integration times
(e.g. 1 h), the detection limit can be high (160–200 mBq m−3 ;
Wada et al., 2010). The direct two-filter dual-flow-loop technique reported in this study is unique with regard to its broad
applicability to weather/fetch conditions and its very low detection limit at hourly temporal resolution (see Sect. 2.2).
In February 2013, an existing aerosol and trace-gas monitoring program of the Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI) at King Sejong Station was enhanced by the addition
of continuous hourly atmospheric radon observations. While
numerous studies have already used radon to assist with the
interpretation of trace species transported to, or produced
within, the Antarctic atmosphere (Gros et al., 1998; Winkler,
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 9903–9916, 2014
Syowa Station, 5 months.
Mawson station, Jan-1999 to Aug-2000.
Dumont d’Urville, 1967–1981.
Terra Nova Bay, Ferraz Station; 3 summers, 1995–
Dumont d’Urville.
Various observations from Academician Vernadsky Station (a review)
Dumont d’Urville, Dec-1978 to Nov-1979.
Mawson, Dumont d’Urville, 1 year.
Ocean cruise to 69◦ S, 2 summers (2004–2005).
Georg-von-Neumayer station, 1995–2011.
1992; Murphey and Hogan, 1992; Wyputta, 1997; Pereira et
al., 2004, 2006), few of the published data sets have provided
continuous, direct (i.e. not via progeny), long-term, highsensitivity radon observations, with hourly temporal resolution.
The aims of this study are (i) to provide an overview of the
King Sejong Station radon program, (ii) to characterise the
temporal variability observed in the first year of operation,
(iii) to compare our findings with existing Antarctic radon
observations, (iv) to characterise the fetch regions of the most
terrestrially influenced air masses at King Sejong Station and
(v) to demonstrate the utility of radon for elucidating transport processes and large-scale circulation characteristics in
this important region.
Site and surrounds
The KOPRI has operated at King Sejong station (62.217◦ S,
58.783◦ W; Figs. 1 and 2) since 1988 (
gawsis/reports.asp?StationID=2076202714). The station became part of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO)
network in 1989 (index no. 89251), and has operated as a
regional WMO Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) station
since October 2010 (GAW ID “KSG”). King Sejong station
S. D. Chambers et al.: Characterising terrestrial influences on Antarctic air masses
1◦ x 1◦ resolution generated by the global data assimilation
system (GDAS) model run by the National Weather Service’s (NWS) National Centre for Environmental Prediction
(NCEP). However, the tendency for HYSPLIT to overestimate mixing depths (e.g. Fig. 3, Lin et al., 2003) should be
Figure 1. Overview of historic and current atmospheric radon measurement sites in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions, including
King Sejong station, Antarctic Peninsula. Mean track of summer
westerly winds indicated in blue.
(KSG) lies off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula on Baton
Peninsula, King George Island (Fig. 1 and 2a), and has a
relatively undisturbed oceanic fetch from the west through
north-northwest. The spit of land west of the station separating KSG from the Southern Ocean (Fig. 2a) is 2–4 km wide
and < 200 m above sea level (a.s.l.).
Hourly climate data for the study (e.g. Fig. 3) were sourced
from a nearby automatic meteorological observation system
(AMOS-1; Fig. 2b) on a 10 m weather tower. The available
observations include: air temperature (◦ C), dew point temperature (◦ C), relative humidity ( %), pressure (hPa), wind
speed (m s−1 ), wind direction (◦ ), solar radiation (W m−2 ),
ultra-violet radiation (W m−2 ) and surface temperature (◦ C)
(see also Lee et al., 2002). Measurements of atmospheric
composition were made from the Atmospheric Monitoring
Station (AMS), 150 m south-southeast of AMOS-1.
KSG subtends a 60◦ arc (355–55◦ ) of influence on the
AMS (Fig. 2b) and this sector is routinely excluded from atmospheric composition observations. However, since topography of the order of 600–700 m a.s.l. lies within this sector
(Jiahong et al., 1998), flow in the marine boundary layer is
often blocked and these wind directions are rarely observed
in practice.
Mean monthly estimates of the mixing depth at KSG,
obtained from the PC version of HYSPLIT v4.0 (HYbrid
Single-Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory; Draxler
and Rolph, 2003), varied from 440 to 610 m (σ/µ = 44 %).
These calculations were based on meteorological data of
Radon measurements
Radon is a naturally occurring, radioactive gas, emitted by
most soil and rocks. A noble gas, and poorly soluble, its primary atmospheric sink is radioactive decay (half-life, t0.5 =
3.82 days). Since radon’s oceanic sources are 2 orders of
magnitude smaller than its terrestrial sources (Zahorowski et
al., 2013), and its atmospheric lifetime is comparable to that
of short-lived anthropogenic pollutants (e.g. NOx or SO2 ),
the residence times of water and aerosols, and the timescale
of many important aspects of atmospheric dynamics, radon
is an ideal tracer for transport studies focusing on distant terrestrial pollution.
A 1500 L two-filter dual-flow-loop radon detector (Whittlestone and Zahorowski, 1998; Chambers et al., 2011) was
installed within the Geophysics Building of KSG, 65 m east
of AMOS-1. Air was sampled at 50 L min−1 through 50 mm
high-density polyethylene (HDPE) agricultural pipe from
6 m above ground level (a.g.l.). The inlet was heated to ∼ 5◦ C
to minimise snow/ice blockages, and a 400 L delay volume
was used to prevent thoron (220 Rn; t0.5 =55.6s) contamination. The data recovery rate during the measurement period,
accounting for calibrations, maintenance and technical difficulties, was 96 %.
The detector was calibrated monthly by injecting radon
at 60 cc min−1 for 5 h from a Pylon Radium-226 source
(9.902 ± 4 % kBq) traceable to the National Institute of
Standards and Technology (NIST) standards. The extensive oceanic fetch, small local flux (order of 0.077 atoms
cm−2 s−1 ; Evangelista and Pereira, 2002; Solecki, 2005) and
stability of the mixing depth on sub-synoptic timescales generally resulted in low radon concentrations with little diurnal
variability. Consequently the 226 Ra source was sufficient to
yield peaks 2 orders of magnitude greater than typical ambient concentrations. The detector’s sensitivity (calibration factor) was determined to be 0.37 cts s−1 / Bq m−3 at the commencement of the measurements. This is expected to change
very gradually with time, as a result of slow degradation of
the alpha detection head assembly.
The instrumental background signal is attributable to the
accumulation of the long-lived particulate radon progeny
210 Pb (t
0.5 = 22.3 year) on the detector’s second filter, as well
as cosmic radiation and various site-specific influences. Automatic background checks are performed 3-monthly intervals by shutting down the sampling and internal circulation
blowers and subsequently monitoring the 30 min count rate
for a period of 24 h. Instrumental background at the commencement of measurements was determined to be around
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 9903–9916, 2014
S. D. Chambers et al.: Characterising terrestrial influences on Antarctic air masses
Figure 2. (a) Location of King Sejong Station on King George Island at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, and (b) the relative location of
KSG radon observations, meteorological observations (automatic meteorological observation system #1), the atmospheric monitoring station
and the excluded station sector (355–55◦ ).
Figure 3. The 2013 Climate statistics for KSG: (a) mean monthly temperature, (b) mean monthly wind speed and (c) median monthly wind
direction; whiskers represent ± 1σ of hourly observations.
34 cts h−1 . While no significant change in background has
thus far been observed (due to the low ambient radon levels),
a gradual increase is anticipated as 210 Pb accumulates on the
detector’s second filter.
Raw counts are integrated to hourly values before removing the background and calibrating to a radon concentration
(in mBq m−3 ). The standard deviation of the hourly background over the last 19 h of the 24 h background check is typically around σBG = 6 cts h−1 , which is equivalent to a radon
concentration of about 5 mBq m−3 . Consequently, the removal of instrumental background may result in negative calibrated hourly radon values down to around −10 mBq m−3
(i.e. −2σBG ) when the actual atmospheric radon concentrations are very close to zero.
The relative counting error, CErel , at a given photomultiplier voltage setting, V , is defined as
CErel (V ) = σraw /Cnet ,
where σraw is the standard deviation of the raw hourly count
produced in the presence of a constant radon concentration
in the detector tank, and Cnet is the hourly count due to
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 9903–9916, 2014
radon alone (i.e. with the instrumental background removed).
Modelling σraw assuming a linear composite Poisson process,
CErel (V ) can be estimated for a range of nominal ambient
radon concentrations, Rnom , by recording the counts detected
during the background b(V ) and calibration c(V ) cycles as a
function of the voltage setting:
k (c (V ) − b (V )) + b (V )
CErel (V ) =
k (c (V ) − b (V ))
where Rcal is the (known) equilibrium radon concentration
achieved within the detector tank during the calibration cycle. The detector’s lower limit of detection (LLD), defined
as the radon concentration at which the relative counting error first exceeds 30 % at the chosen operating voltage, can
then be determined from the resultant set of curves (Fig. 4).
Based on the current operating voltage of 575 V, the LLD
of the KSG detector was determined by this method to be
around 25 mBq m−3 for hourly integrations.
To put the measurement error in context, a 30 % counting error at 25 mBq m−3 corresponds to a potential error
in the concentration estimate of approximately 7 mBq m−3 .
S. D. Chambers et al.: Characterising terrestrial influences on Antarctic air masses
Table 2. The 2013–2014 KSG monthly means, extremes and distributions (10, 25, 50, 75, 90 percentiles) of atmospheric radon (mBq m−3 ).
times are local (GMT −4 h), and the Southern Hemisphere
seasonal convention is used.
Figure 4. Relative counting error as a function of photomultiplier
operating voltage for nominal radon concentrations between 10 and
50 mBq m−3 . The KSG detector’s current operating voltage is indicated with a vertical dashed line.
The relative uncertainty rapidly reduces with radon concentration such that the counting errors at 40 mBq m−3 and
100 mBq m−3 are 17 % and 9 %, respectively. Considered
in conjunction with the standard deviation of monthly calibration estimates (0.37 ± σ 0.008; 2.2 %), and the ± 4 % accuracy of the calibration source, the typical measurement
uncertainty for an hourly measurement of 100 mBq m−3 is
∼ 15 mBq m−3 ; but much less for longer-term averages. The
relative error drops off as ∼ N−1/2 for N data points.
This section summarises the main characteristics of hourly
KSG radon observations for the first year of operation. All
Seasonal and diurnal variability
The seasonal KSG radon cycle is characterised by a broad
summer–autumn maximum and winter–spring minimum
(Table 2; Fig. 5a). Median monthly radon concentrations
decreased from 72 mBq m−3 in February to 44 mBq m−3
in November, with corresponding 10th percentiles (representing the least terrestrially influenced air), reducing from
49 mBq m−3 to 29 mBq m−3 . The latter range is similar –
although opposite in phase – to the seasonal variability in
Southern Ocean baseline air masses as observed at Cape
Grim in Tasmania (27 to 44 mBq m−3 ; Zahorowski et al.,
2013), where “baseline” here represents the least terrestrially
perturbed air. Monthly 90th percentile concentrations were
highly variable due to the station’s proximity to South America (∼ 900 km), from which passing weather systems occasionally bring terrestrially influenced air to KSG year round
(Fig. 5a).
Only in the 90th percentiles of the diurnal radon composite (Fig. 5b) was a weak diurnal signal recognisable, characterised by lower concentrations between 11 and 16 h, and
maximum concentrations between 2 and 6 h. These values
typically corresponded to periods of lower wind speed when
local influences were more pronounced. The lack of a discernible diurnal cycle in the median values indicates that diurnal changes in mixing depth were minimal at KSG, and
that mixing depth was more strongly influenced by changing synoptic weather patterns than the diurnal cycle of incident radiation. This behaviour is typical of island sites with a
strong marine influence.
Effects of local sources
On average, local radon sources had little impact on KSG
observations. Sector analyses (not shown) indicated a 52
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 9903–9916, 2014
S. D. Chambers et al.: Characterising terrestrial influences on Antarctic air masses
Figure 5. (a) Monthly distributions (10th, 50th and 90th percentiles) of hourly radon concentration, and (b) hourly distributions of composite
diurnal values at KSG from February to October, 2013.
mind the tendency for HYSPLIT to overestimate mixing
depths, this compares closely with the summertime enhancements observed in the SW and NE sectors. Based on the observed radon enhancements in winter and spring, the mean
radon emanation from the Shetland Islands when snow/ice
covered might drop as low as 0.01–0.03 atoms cm−2 s−1 .
Figure 6. (a) Hourly and (b) daily-mean radon concentrations at
King Sejong station. Note logarithmic scale.
(summer), 32 (autumn), 18 (winter) and 6 (spring) mBq m−3
enhancement of median radon concentrations, above an assumed marine baseline value of 30 mBq m−3 , from the NE
and SW sectors (the main axis of the South Shetland Islands)
in the current data set; the maximum value (in summer) was
a factor of 3 to 4 less than the enhancement from directly
north or south representing, respectively, South American air
masses moving south and terrestrially effected tropospheric
air subsiding near the pole and travelling north.
Evangelista and Pereira (2002) estimated that < 10 % of
the South Shetland Islands are free of ice, and that their effective mean radon flux is around 0.077 atoms cm−2 s−1 . Based
on this mean flux, together with approximate land fetches
for the islands SW/NW of KSG of 100 km/70 km, HYSPLIT
mixing depths in the range 440–610 m and a mean wind
speed of 8 m s−1 (Fig. 3b), we estimate that the South Shetland Islands could enhance radon concentrations by around
33–46 mBq m−3 above oceanic baseline values. Bearing in
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 9903–9916, 2014
Radonic storms
Hourly and daily mean time series of KSG radon concentrations for the year of observations are presented in Fig. 6a and
b, respectively. Days for which more than six of the potential
24 hourly measurements were not available were excluded
from the daily mean plot.
A number of large positive anomalies are evident from
the seasonal trend in radon concentration (Fig. 6; note logarithmic scale), some characterised by hourly concentrations
> 1000 mBq m−3 , others in the range 150–400 mBq m−3 .
Such events, widely reported throughout the network of
Antarctic stations, are referred to as “radonic storms” (e.g.
Ui et al., 1998; Wyputta, 1997; Pereira, 1990; Balkanski and
Jacob, 1990; Polian et al., 1986; Lambert et al., 1970), and
are understood to represent either the rapid transport of air
from an “upstream” continent within a synoptic system (in
the boundary layer), or an accumulation/release of locally
sourced radon. Fetch regions associated with these “radonic
storms” at KSG, as well as those associated with persistent
low radon events, corresponding to the most aged Southern
Ocean air masses, are investigated below.
Fetch analysis
This section characterises the predominant fetch regions of
three kinds of KSG air masses:
1. high-radon events (hourly concentrations > 400 mBq
m−3 );
S. D. Chambers et al.: Characterising terrestrial influences on Antarctic air masses
2. intermediate events (hourly concentrations 100–
400 mBq m−3 );
3. least perturbed air (persistent low radon events, where
observed concentrations drop below the monthly first
quartile value for at least 3 consecutive hours).
In subsequent applications of KSG radon observations, it
is likely that each of these three air mass types would exhibit
markedly different anthropogenic pollution signatures.
Figure 7a presents a trajectory density plot derived from
HYSPLIT back trajectories corresponding to high-radon
concentrations (> 400 mBq m−3 ). While Pereira et al. (2006)
reported transport to Ferraz from as far north as Brazil (with
radon > 2000 mBq m−3 ), KSG high-radon events in 2013
were typically the result of slow-moving air masses crossing
South America between 47 and 55◦ S. In terms of potential
anthropogenic pollutant sources, this fetch region includes
several population centres of small-to-intermediate size, including Punta Arenas (population ca. 123 000). Based on the
findings of Pereira et al. (2006), considerable inter-annual
variability in trace-gas emissions (e.g. CO and CO2 ) is likely
for this fetch region.
A similar density plot for the intermediate events (100–
400 mBq m−3 ), shown in Fig. 7b, indicated that these tended
to be associated with local emissions from the islands around
KSG (as also noted by Pereira, 1990, and Pereira et al.,
2006) and the southernmost islands of South America. Another source of these events was fast-moving air masses from
deep in the South Pacific. While their origins could not be
traced to land by the available 10-day back trajectories, these
air masses are thought to have originated from Australia or
New Zealand (8–10 000 km distant). While the existence of
such events has not previously been noted in published Ferraz data sets, according to Heimann et al. (1990) the transport
of distinct radon plumes over such distances is not uncommon. This has important implications for the potential transport of aged anthropogenic pollutants to the Antarctic Peninsula. If undiluted, a representative Australian radon event
(2500 mBq m−3 ) would decay to activities between 150 and
400 mBq m−3 in 10–15 days (see Sect. 4.3).
The density plot corresponding to the least terrestrially
perturbed KSG air masses (Fig. 7c) identified either air
masses moving slowly through the South Pacific within the
marine boundary layer, or faster moving air masses that had
recently crossed the coast of mainland Antarctica, but at elevations of 1–2 km, which would likely be above the boundary
layer (lower troposphere) at those locations.
Figure 7. Trajectory density plots of (a) high-radon events
(> 400 mBq m−3 ), (b) intermediate radon events (100–
400 mBq m−3 ) and (c) least terrestrially perturbed events. Here
“N” represents the number of times a trajectory passes through a
0.5◦ × 0.5◦ grid cell.
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 9903–9916, 2014
S. D. Chambers et al.: Characterising terrestrial influences on Antarctic air masses
Figure 8. (a) Monthly distributions of adjusted hourly Mawson radon concentrations, and (b) comparison of median monthly radon concentrations between KSG and the adjusted Mawson data set (1999–2000 composite year).
4 Discussion
4.1 Comparisons with previously reported Antarctic
radon studies
This section presents the KSG data to date in the context of
existing Antarctic radon observations (Fig. 1), both to give
credence to the developing data set, as well as to assist in our
interpretation of the observed variability.
4.1.1 Direct radon observations: two-filter
detection method
Prior to this study, the only other two-filter radon measurements in Antarctica were at Mawson Station between January 1999 and August 2000 (Whittlestone and Zahorowski,
2000; available at{\&}MetadataType=0). While the
Mawson detector’s sensitivity was stable over the measurement period, instrumental background determination
was problematic, likely attributable to local thoron (220 Rn)
contamination since no thoron delay volume was used.
Local thoron levels can sometimes be significant at Antarctic
stations (e.g. Tositti et al., 2002). We corrected the Mawson
radon record by first removing a linear trend in the instrumental background signal and then shifting the net hourly
counts such that the monthly third percentile value was not
less than −2σBG (see Sect. 2.2). This required an assumption
that the Mawson detector had a similar σBG to the current
KSG detector as the two detectors are similar in design and
Monthly distributions of the adjusted Mawson radon concentrations are shown in Fig. 8a. The representativeness of
the Mawson observations in January and December is uncertain due to low data availability (not shown). However,
the high January concentrations are consistent with summertime observations at the nearby Syowa Station (Ui et al.,
1998) in the range 150–270 mBq m−3 . In late winter (July–
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 9903–9916, 2014
August), median values are 25–39 mBq m−3 , similar to the
oceanic baseline values observed at Cape Grim (Zahorowski
et al., 2013), and corresponding 10th percentile values are
1–3 mBq m−3 .
Monthly medians for the 1999–2000 composite year at
Mawson compare well with the 2013 KSG observations
(Fig. 8b). Both stations show a seasonal cycle characterised
by high summer and low winter concentrations that is typical
of Antarctic sites (see also Fig. 9). Between March and June
there is a particularly close correspondence between the two
stations. In late winter, however, the data indicates that Mawson air masses are considerably more aged (with respect to
remote terrestrial influences) than at KSG.
Overall, the mean February-to-February radon concentrations at KSG and Mawson Station were 77 ± σ 100 mBq m−3
and 64 ± σ 33 mBq m−3 , respectively. Given the considerable
interannual variability in mean annual radon concentrations
of Antarctic stations, this 13 mBq m−3 difference is not particularly significant, but could easily be attributed to a combination of the proximity of KSG to South America, the 5.5◦
difference in latitude between the stations, and the presence
of inter-annual variability.
Direct radon observations: electrostatic
precipitation method
While numerous electrostatic precipitation radon measurements have been conducted in Antarctica (e.g. Pereira, 1990;
Pereira et al., 2004, 2006; Ui et al., 1998; Tositti et al., 2002),
little information on seasonal cycles has been published.
Pereira (1990) reports on two years of observations (1986–
1987; excluding summers) at Ferraz Station, 30 km NE
of KSG. Mean concentrations reported for these periods
(26 ± 18 mBq m−3 and 14 ± 8 mBq m−3 ), were considerably
lower than our 2013 KSG values (76.5 ± 100 mBq m−3 ;
see Table 2) and no seasonal cycle was apparent in the
Ferraz data. The most extreme “radonic storms” reported
S. D. Chambers et al.: Characterising terrestrial influences on Antarctic air masses
Figure 9. Seasonal cycles of radon concentration in Antarctica observed using the indirect progeny method (a, b, c and e) and the direct
two-filter method (d, f). Values are monthly means, unless otherwise stated. See Table 1 for measurement periods.
reached concentrations of 50–126 mBq m−3 , compared to
1000–1800 mBq m−3 in the present study (Fig. 6). In later
publications, however, Pereira et al. (2004, 2006) refer to
Ferraz radonic storms in June and October of 1997 reaching
concentrations of 1300–2900 mBq m−3 . Furthermore, in Table III of Tositti et al. (2002), mean annual Ferraz radon concentrations of 160 ± 140 mBq m−3 and 156 ± 144 mBq m−3
are reported for 1997 and 1998, respectively, and in Table IV a longer-term annual mean value of 110 mBq m−3 is
stated. These results are an order of magnitude higher than
the autumn-through-spring means of Pereira (1990), which
may therefore be erroneous.
Ui et al. (1998) summarises five months (September 1996
to January 1997) of direct radon measurements at Syowa Station (69◦ S, 39◦ 350 E; see Fig. 1). Monthly averaged, daily
mean radon concentrations varied from 150 to 270 mBq m−3 .
The high-ambient concentrations for this remote region were
attributed to local emissions from exposed rock. Reported
radonic storms reached concentrations of 1200 mBq m−3 ,
comparable in magnitude to the KSG events, despite the
nearest continental land fetch for Syowa being much more
distant: 3800 km to Africa and 5000 km to South America.
Tositti et al. (2002) presented three summers of direct radon observations at Terra Nova Bay (74.69◦ S,
164.12◦ E: see Fig. 1). The overall mean concentration
(510 ± 430 mBq m−3 ) was even higher than observed at
Syowa, and was attributed to local radon sources and shallow mixing depths (as evident from the pronounced diurnal
cycle in radon concentrations observed at this site).
Indirect radon observations: radon
progeny technique
The most commonly adopted technique for radon monitoring in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions is the indirect
“progeny” technique (e.g. Lockhart, 1960; Lockhart et al.,
1966; Lambert et al., 1970; Maenhaut et al., 1979; Polian et
al., 1986; Heimann et al., 1990; Wyputta, 1997).
Seasonal radon cycles have been reported for numerous
sites (Fig. 9), each characterised by maximum values in the
warmer months (November through March), and minimum
values in the colder months. Mean wind speeds are comparatively low in summer, and coastal sites experience the least
snow/ice coverage. Site-to-site differences in these factors,
as well as differences in mixing depth, contribute to the large
variability in summertime radon maxima between sites (30–
200 mBq m−3 ; Fig. 9). In winter, local source contributions
are greatly reduced, and mean concentrations usually reflect well-aged or oceanic baseline values (15–40 mBq m−3 ).
At some sites, however, shallow, stable boundary layers (or
proximity to terrestrial sources, as is the case for KSG), can
lead to winter mean radon concentrations higher than typical
baseline values.
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 9903–9916, 2014
S. D. Chambers et al.: Characterising terrestrial influences on Antarctic air masses
Figure 10. Comparison of monthly mean (a) absolute humidity and (b) radon concentration, between “polar” and other air masses.
Local radon sources at the permanently frozen South Pole
station are virtually zero (Lockhart et al., 1966). The amplitude of the seasonal radon cycle at this site (10–30 mBq m−3 ;
Fig. 9a) most likely reflects seasonal changes in the terrestrial
radon signature of tropospheric air that is descending over the
polar region. This matter is further discussed in Sect. 4.2.
The Wyputta (1997) Neumayer radon concentrations have
been excluded from Fig. 9 due to reduced data quality in the
pre-1995 data as described in Weller et al. (2013). In addition to problems discussed in Sect. 4.1.1, it should be noted
that the Mawson station radon record reported by Polian et
al. (1986) (open triangles, Fig. 9d) is inconsistent with other
Antarctic radon observations – lower even than reported concentrations at South Pole – and may therefore be erroneous.
As well as the seasonal variability, inter-annual radon variability at Antarctic sites can also be significant; contributed
to not only by changes in atmospheric circulation, but also
sea ice extent (Weller et al., 2013). In all, 30–50 % variations in the annual mean and 30-70 % variations in monthly
means are not uncommon (e.g. Fig. 9c, Dumont d’Urville;
and Weller et al., 2013, Neumayer).
Sources of seasonal radon variability at
Antarctic stations
As shown in previous sections, despite the remoteness of
most Antarctic coastal regions from significant terrestrial
radon sources, mean concentrations well above oceanic baseline levels (27–44 mBq m−3 ; Zahorowski et al., 2013) are
frequently observed, particularly in summer. In addition to
the influences of local radon sources and the direct transport
of continental air masses to Antarctica within the boundary
layer by passing synoptic weather systems (radonic storms),
it has been hypothesised that indirect transport to polar regions through the mid- to upper-troposphere may play an
important role in the seasonal radon variability (Heimann et
al., 1990; Balkanski and Jacob, 1990; Polian et al., 1986;
Hogan et al., 1982). Shortcomings in the representation of
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 9903–9916, 2014
these large-scale transport patterns by weather and chemical
transport models (which have long demonstrated an ability to
transport “radonic storm” events to Antarctica) may explain
their failure to successfully reproduce even the broad features (summer maximum, winter minimum) of the Antarctic
seasonal radon cycle (Zhang et al., 2008, 2011; Josse et al.,
2004; Taguchi et al., 2002; Heimann et al., 1990; Balkanski
and Jacob, 1990). These shortcomings may be attributable to
weaknesses in current parameterisations of moist convection
and transport in the mid- to upper-troposphere.
Polian et al. (1986) report strong latitudinal gradients of
radon and 210 Pb activities from four summertime cruise
transects between Cape Grim and Dumont d’Urville. Minimum activities were reported between 50 and 55◦ S, where
the mean Australian continental influence becomes minimal.
South of this latitude, however, activities began to increase
once more (see also Winkler et al., 1992; Lambert et al.,
1990). While there is evidence of increasing oceanic radon
flux densities in the Southern Ocean to latitudes of ∼ 55◦ S
(e.g. summer observations of Zahorowski et al., 2013 and
references therein), contributed to by increased zonal wind
speeds and higher Radium-226 content in the surface waters, evidence of another mechanism is provided by the latitudinal gradient of fission products as reported by Polian
et al. (1986). The activity of fission products, sourced from
the upper atmosphere, also increased south of 55◦ S, implying that large-scale circulation patterns (culminating in subsidence over the South Pole and subsequent northward flow to
the Antarctic coastal regions), also play a role in the seasonal
cycle of radon concentrations. Polian et al. (1986) hypothesised that air masses convected upwards over the southern
portions of the Southern Hemisphere land masses reaches the
mid- to upper-troposphere, travel south, subside in the polar
region and then travel north to the Antarctic coastal regions.
Balkanski and Jacob (1990) hypothesise that tropospheric injection of radon to the Southern Ocean atmosphere often exceeds that observed as radonic storms in the boundary layer.
S. D. Chambers et al.: Characterising terrestrial influences on Antarctic air masses
Radon transport to KSG via polar subsidence
In this section, we analyse radon in polar air masses to look
for seasonality in the strength of continental influences on
tropospheric air subsiding at the pole. Since wind direction
alone is not always a clear indicator of long-term air mass
fetch, we use a combination of back trajectories and air mass
absolute humidity as an indicator of air most likely to have
recently subsided over the pole and travelled north to KSG.
Synoptic air masses that have spent a significant portion of
their recent history within the marine boundary layer would
contain more moisture than air masses having recently subsided from the upper atmosphere and travelled to KSG over a
predominantly frozen fetch. For this analysis, we define “polar air masses” at KSG to be persistent events (more than 3
consecutive hourly samples) that have come from south of
70◦ S and have an absolute humidity below the 1st quartile
monthly value.
Mean monthly absolute humidity and radon concentrations of “polar” and “other” air masses at KSG are presented in Fig. 10. Polar air masses thus defined constituted, on average, 12 % of all samples. A clear seasonality in the radon concentration of descending polar air
masses at KSG is evident, characterised by a late summer maximum (80 mBq m−3 ) and a late winter minimum
(35 mBq m−3 ). The 90th percentile radon concentrations in
February–March polar air masses reached 134 mBq m−3 .
Mean summer values are consistent with summer tropospheric (∼ 3 km) radon concentrations (74 mBq m−3 ) reported by Polian et al. (1986) over Dumont d’Urville.
These findings could be attributable to a stronger continental signature in the troposphere over Antarctica late in
summer than in winter as a result of deep convection over
the southern continents, and/or reduced tropospheric transport times/increased subsidence rates over the pole in summer than winter (e.g. Weller et al., 2002; Maenhaut et al.,
1979). Briefly exploring these two possibilities, if seasonality in the continental signature reaching the troposphere (assuming a seasonally constant radon source function) was the
sole factor, less than half (∼ 45 %) as much boundary layer
air would need to be lofted/convected to the troposphere in
winter than in summer. Alternatively, the observed seasonal
change in polar air radon concentration would require tropospheric air masses to take 20–25 % longer to reach the
surface of Antarctica in winter than in summer. However, it
should be noted that the observed amplitude (45 mBq m−3 )
of seasonality in “polar air” at KSG was larger than the amplitude of the seasonal radon cycle observed at the South
Pole (10–30 mBq m−3 : Fig. 9a), which we hypothesise to be
driven by similar processes.
Regardless of the mechanism, a strong seasonally varying
signature of remote terrestrial influences on tropospheric air
masses descending at the pole is clearly evident in the KSG
radon data set, and will presumably also be reflected in the
concentrations/abundances of anthropogenic pollutants that
are weakly soluble or less prone to washout.
Estimating dilution factors for anthropogenic
pollution events
The composition of pollution events reaching KSG will
be influenced by source strength, time of air mass contact
with the source transit time, washout/deposition and dilution.
Since most pollution has terrestrial origins, and the sole sink
of radon is radioactive decay, analysing the radon concentration of terrestrial air masses provides a convenient means
to estimate dilution of pollution plumes (e.g. Polian et al.,
Here we choose the two events over the observation period with the strongest terrestrial signature as case studies
for dilution estimates (Fig. 11a, b). Average back trajectories
(Fig. 11c) were calculated for the periods indicated by red
circles in Fig. 11a and b, from which the mean time over land,
and transit time (from the South American coast to KSG),
were estimated.
Event #1: this air mass spent 27.5 h over land, with
a mean elevation of < 1000 m a.g.l. (Fig. 11d), implying
good contact with the surface. Assuming a radon flux of
1 atom cm−2 s−1 from the South American land surface
(Zhang et al., 2011), 2062 Bq m−2 of radon could have been
accumulated in the moving air mass column. The transit time
for this event was 60.5 h, so after accounting for radioactive
decay, the air mass’ radon activity would be 1310 Bq m−3 .
If undiluted, the radon concentration at KSG would have
been 4852 mBq m−3 , based on the mean HYSPLIT mixing
depth of 270 m. Since the mean observed concentration was
1723 mBq m−3 , we estimate a dilution factor of ∼ 2.8, as a
result of combined lateral dispersion and venting through the
top of the boundary layer.
Event #2: this air mass dropped to ∼ 1000 m when
it crossed the coast, and spent 45.5 h over land, potentially accumulating 3412 Bq m−2 of radon in the column. After 42.5 h in transit, the activity would have
been ∼ 2481 Bq m−2 . Based on a mean mixing depth of
450 m, the undiluted near-surface concentration would have
been 5513 mBq m−3 , compared to the observed value of
1363 mBq m−3 . This equates to a dilution factor of 4.0,
which is larger than for event #1, likely due to a frontal passage (indicated by the reversal of the trajectory path over
South America).
These dilution factors are comparable to the values of 3–
7 estimated by Polian et al. (1986) for rapid continental air
mass transport to sub-Antarctic stations in the Indian Ocean.
We report on the first year of hourly radon observations
with a two-filter dual-flow-loop detector at King Sejong
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 9903–9916, 2014
S. D. Chambers et al.: Characterising terrestrial influences on Antarctic air masses
Figure 11. Summary of the largest two radon events of 2013: (a, b) hourly radon concentrations, (c) back-trajectory paths, and (d) elevation
(m a.s.l.) of air mass along back trajectory (time in hours prior to air mass arrival at KSG).
station, Antarctic Peninsula. This detector was commissioned in February 2013 to supplement an ongoing trace-gas
and aerosol monitoring program at the station. The set-up and
operational characteristics of the detector, including calibration, instrumental background determination and lower limit
of detection, are discussed in detail.
The seasonal cycle of radon at King Sejong station compared well with direct and indirect long-term radon measurements made at eight other Antarctic sites over the past
50 years. Our review of historic and ongoing radon measurements in this region identified flaws in some existing data
sets, and resulted in an important revision of previously reported observations at Mawson Station.
A combination of back trajectory analyses and radon was
used to identify fetch regions of terrestrially influenced air
masses arriving at the Antarctic Peninsula, which included
South America (47–53◦ S), aged Australian plumes, and
small local island influences. Plume dilution factors of 2.8–
4.0 were estimated for the two largest advection events from
South America.
A combination of air mass back-trajectories and absolute
humidity was used to identify tropospheric air recently descended over the polar region. We identified and characterised a seasonality in the remote terrestrial influence on
these polar air masses – understood to originate from con-
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 9903–9916, 2014
vective activity over the Southern Hemisphere continents –
and plan to characterise similar trends in the physio-chemical
properties of aerosols measured at King Sejong Station in future investigations.
Acknowledgements. This research was partly supported by KOPRI
research grants PE14160 and PE14010. We thank the staff at
King Sejong Station, King George Island, Antarctica, as well as
Ot Sisoutham and Sylvester Werczynski at the Australian Nuclear
Science and Technology Organisation for their support of the
radon measurement program at King Sejong Station. We also
acknowledge NOAA Air Resources Laboratory (ARL) who made
available the HYSPLIT transport and dispersion model and the
relevant input files for the generation of back trajectories used in
this paper.
Edited by: Y. Balkanski
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