Africa & Science – Afrika & Wissenschaft – Afrique & Science

Nr. 00265- 9th Jan. 2024 – Weekly Newspaper devoted to Science & Technology in Africa ** Pour la promotion de l'esprit scientifique en Afrique

How helpful are Scientific Researches to overcome Environmental Problems?

« For what purposes do we need risk assessment research for Nuclear, Chemical, Biological warfare and several other polluting gases and environment deteriorating agents, if lobbies continue with the production, stockpiling and transportations of substances? »

 By Gedion Getahun*

Currently several hundred projects are tackling environmental issues around the globe. Most projects cover virtually the whole spectrum of human activity starting from agriculture and education to nuclear power. The results obtained and the knowledge gained from these research projects have a significant scientific as well as political impact to influence or even to accelerate decisions that looks beneficial to protect the environment. In the last decades several instruments, scientific equipment to control pollution and environmental damages, were developed and installed around the globe. Starting from the galaxy, space, earth orbit, until deep in the sea and oceans, environmental analysis is expanded everywhere. Despite all these instrumentation and pollution analysis our environment is highly polluted. Small effort was made to improve the situation but until now no solution was found to stop pollution, desertification, hazards in lakes, springs, oceans and seas. Here are few environmental scientific approaches to improve the situation:

The Remote Sensing Technologies for Earth & Space Analysis

To analyse Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Research the instrument called the Michelson Interferometer (MIPAS) is applied. The instrument is a high-resolution Fourier-Transform Spectrometer designed to measure concentration profiles of atmospheric constitutions on a global scale. It observes the atmospheric emissions from the earth’s horizon through the mid-infrared region, which will allow the simultaneous measurement of more than 20 atmospheric trace gases, including the oxides of nitrogen and  several chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).This MIPAS data provide global data coverage, particularly the polar regions where the stratospheric chemistry is currently exhibiting some alarming changes.

According to the French Space Agency (Centre National d’ Etudes Spatiales: CNES) spot 4 remote – sensing satellite has produced images in the year 1998. The satellite provides environmental data for ecological science, agricultural science, land management and topographic and relief mapping. The data are collected by two complementary environmental imaging instruments called Vegetation and HRVIR (High Resolution Visible Infrared).

 Vegetation and HRVIR detect radiation at four wave lengths chosen to give optimum environmental information. Both instruments use CCD cameras to detect three bands in the visible spectrum. Indium and gallium arsenide (InGAAS) arrays are used to detect infrared radiation. The instrument can also determine surface water content, desertification, snow cover and urbanisation. According to CNES, satellites make major contributions to the understanding of the biosphere by acquiring global data on the photosynthesis cycle and plant cover. This is essential for quantifying the connection between changes in greenhouse gases and changes in vegetation. By providing regular data, on agricultural activity it is possible to predict food shortages and to provide early famine warnings.


 State –of –the art seismological networks, with origins in nuclear test monitoring are enabling scientists to obtain an improved understanding of the geophysical properties of the Earth. Moreover, mineral deposits and the limitation of damage due to geological disasters such as earth quakes, landslides and volcanic eruptions will also be detected. Around a million earth quakes are recorded each year. Although a few seismic stations were set up more than 100 years ago, they came into their own in the 1950s with the need to monitor compliance to the nuclear test ban treaty, which means detecting underground nuclear explosions and distinguishing them from earthquakes. Among the benefits of this knowledge are the re-evaluation of the safety of constructions such as nuclear power plants and an understanding of the development of the faults where earthquakes occur and of the roots of volcanoes. Importantly, this leads to a better recognition of explosion types, which is needed absolutely to identify the test ban treaty, by making the distinction between earthquakes and nuclear explosions.


The underwater depth of the Earth’s oceans makes the environmental research work a difficult task. It ranks as one of the most challenging underwater ecological observations. Therefore, obtaining scientific data from the depth of the oceans is a costly and time consuming process. However, Marine Scientists have invented innovative and sophisticated ways of collecting their data.  Oceanographers have installed a wide range of instruments deployed around the world to research the oceans. Hence, the Oceanography, computers control deep sea experiments, for example, to study bio-geochemistry of acidic, metal-rich river-estuary systems. Much of these instruments have to be automated for their applications at sea and some of them are left on the seabed and picked up months later to record their results and also allow them to recover. The majority of oceanographic instruments rely totally on analogue electronics to acquire their data. Only after most of the signal processing has been done, the data is converted into digital format. Conventional hardwire communication is normally used to send the data backup to the receiving PC system on the board of a well equipped scientific research ship.

Screening Methods for Environmental Pollutants

Screening method is based on various principles ranging from simple chemical test strips to sophisticated Spectroscopic and Immunological Techniques. The followings are few examples.

• Immunoassay as screening techniques for organic micro pollutants

• The application of sensors for automatic and remote pollutant analysis and for monitoring heavy metals. This technology is based on the use of fibre optics.

• Sensor for surface –enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS Sensor) techniques to study trace compounds in the environment

• Laser scanning telemeter for circulation in hazardous environments in space is also used.

Micro and surface analysis techniques to study the corrosion and pollution damages of Cultural Heritage and Statues, Monuments and some important old Medieval Buildings are affected by pollutants and air borne particles. For example European objects of cultural heritage are severely damaged by the influence of acid trace gases particularly buildings made out of marble or limestone and glass windows from the medieval churches. Generally, the main concern in the conservation technique and strategy of a glass surface of Medieval Building is, to avoid the contamination with acid trace gases like for example sulphur dioxide (SO2) and the oxides of nitrogen (NOx).

 To study environmental specimens like:

i)        Chemicals of individual airborne particles (e.g. asbestos fibre)

ii)       Soil components (e.g. contamination from waste deposits)

iii)      Corrosion (e.g. in cultural heritage materials)

 Electron Probe Microanalysis (EPMA) complemented by X- Ray Diffraction and several other analytical instrumentations are applied. They are sufficient to characterise the pollution on the micro scale. Applying this scientific analysis, structural changes of the damaged products could be identified. Such investigations are incorporated in a large UNEP program on the weathering of medieval glass under different environmental and climatic conditions.

The heritage experts apply also the laser technique for example LAMA (Laser Manual) which is portable handy kit to clean the historic buildings without causing any damage. Laser beam carried by an optical fibre erases the mark of time. This method is developed to clean buildings in particular the master piece of the cultural heritage.

 Water Quality

Another important task concerns the assessment of ground water quality, to prove water supply both in agricultural regions and in the industrial sectors. This allows controlling contents of nitrates, phosphates, lead, cadmium, arsenic, manganese and iron. Near areas with increased agricultural activities, higher concentrations of phosphate and nitrates are expected in ground water. Lead, cadmium, arsenic, manganese and iron above the tolerance limits could be identified in groundwater in the industrial area.

Radiation Control & Radioactivity

Nuclear Instrumentation like dosimeters, and whole body counters (alpha, beta detection systems) novel radiation detectors like gamma spectrometry and radionuclide imaging, are good examples of radioactivity measurements and trace possibilities.

Nuclear Forensic

It is a scientific discipline to assist the investigation of nuclear security. It examines the dissemination of nuclear and other radioactive materials in the environment. Also prevent and identify illicit trail detonation of nuclear material in the global scale.  Therefore, it is applicable for the comprehensive Nuclear –Test-Ban Treaty.

In the final analysis, there is enough know-how, technical and scientific means to collect environmental data worldwide. Pollution control work is assessed every seconds, nano or femto seconds continuously.  The world community knows the consequences that, if our planet will be exploited continuously in the same way until the present time, the consequences are plenty.

The questions which arise in this context are:

• When do we stop the exploitation of the planet?

• What benefit do we have, if sophisticated instruments for seismological purposes are watching the oceans, although the nuclear powers (countries) deliberately do the explosion?

• Why do International Organisations and scientists need to predict food shortages and have instruments for early famine warnings, after they have recognised that  unnatural (artificial) manmade political and economical destabilisation have brought immense problems like drought, degradations, civil-war, displacements of some indigenous people from their living regions due to political, and economical purposes (land grabbing and land leasing programs in Africa), overgrazing activities; overpopulation; deforestation etc? Problems exist in the world and especially in  the developing countries and those countries with economies in transition do not have the means to tackle those problems and overcome them?

• Why do we need high tech Instrumentations to observe the greenhouse effects if we do not solve the problems soon? Kyoto is one good example.

• Despite the replacement of the CFCs with another chemicals and avoiding persistent organic pollutants, yet there exists emission and pollution of the atmosphere. Why are we worried about the Global Warming and depletion of the ozone layer without making sufficient effort to reduce emission?

• For what purposes do we need risk assessment research for Nuclear, Chemical, Biological warfare and several other polluting gases, and environment deteriorating agents, if lobbies continue with the production, stockpiling and transportations of substances? Also insufficient security and unserious waste disposal technologies which are in fact the main enemy of our health and ecology?

Environmental problems are well recognised. But solutions are required. Since 1973 several environmental conferences, national and international meetings have occurred. Conventions, legislations were also made. But until present, no realistic approach towards the solutions of the global ecological problems has yet been recognised.

What we need urgently is to realise how to obtain sustainable development and put every single aspect what it seems to us reasonable into practice to reach the aim possibly soon. In addition we have to consider the following:

1)    Environmental protection, economic development and social equality should be designed admitted to ensure adequate and better life for the wider international community not only for the reach nation.

2)    There is no doubt about benefits to be gained from the liberalisation of trade, known as globalisation by increasing international investments. But this system increase production, and consumption around the world which in fact is against the need to sustain the planets natural resources. Therefore deeper consideration must be given to the phenomenon of globalisation and the environment.

3)    Industries and manufacturing sectors, no matter where, have to include environmentally sustainable work programme into their commercial and economical decision. They shouldn’t be profit oriented only.

4)    Governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), national and international civil society members, need to co-operate. A well informed and concerned civil society is crucially important and brings more success in national and international scale.

5)    An appeal to the wider society in general, the throwaway society of the affluent nations in particular, to make an effort to promote the change of life style by refraining the dumping of every single material wherever possible.

6)    The world economy should come to an agreement with the ecology. The industry especially the multinationals should include in their globalisation programme, how to supply technologies that enable the entire nation to improve their quality of life without destroying that of the future generation.

7)    Ecologists, as well as other environmentally conscious citizen around the globe should send out the echo which is loud and clear: We need by every means economical development that should fit into the environmentally sustainable development. Finally, the globalisation of the world economy and technological development without international consensus to confront emerging environmental threats should be avoided.

Dr. Gedion Getahun
Associate Professor & Environmental Advisor and Freelance Scientist
Nuclear & Radioanalytical Chemistry, Academy of Science & Mainz University (Germany)

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