Imagine that in fierce competition you have gained access to one of the large telescopes in the Canary Islands or Chile. You have two or three nights to take measurements. This is your only chance this year.
Unfortunately, the sky is covered with thick clouds, and you cannot take any measurements.
Magnus Gålfalk subscribes to the fact that life as an astronomer can be frustrating. He does not have those problems nowadays, thanks to a chance encounter more than ten years ago.
Astronomical technology applied to Earth
At a conference in astrobiology, Magnus Gålfalk’s supervisor in astronomy happened to run into climate scientist David Bastviken from the Department of Thematic Studies, Environmental Change (TEMAM) at Linköping University (LiU). They came to talk about how astronomers study the chemical composition of distant stars and galaxies through so-called hyperspectral cameras.
The problem for astronomers is that the observations are disturbed by methane in the Earth's atmosphere. Therefore, they must constantly make corrections to offset such impacts. Climate scientists, on the other hand, want to measure methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Would it be possible to use the technology from astronomy to detect emissions here on Earth? This question was passed to Magnus Gålfalk who had in-depth knowledge of the measuring instruments.
I’m passionate about measurements of all sorts.
He took a big step across discipline boundaries to TEMAM at Linköping University and started taking pictures of greenhouse gases in 2012. He has had no regrets.
“It makes you more unique, I think. In astronomy, there are many people doing the same thing, but in climate research, no one was involved with hyperspectral cameras that can take pictures of methane, nitrous oxide or water vapour in landscapes. It was a transfer of technology from astronomy to environment,” says Magnus Gålfalk.
The interdisciplinary approach
He is currently involved in several projects where measuring instruments are attached to drones, which is a fairly new method for measuring greenhouse gases. In the autumn of 2023, he was in Australia on a field assignment.
“We measured emissions from sewage treatment plants and landfills, but also wetlands and lakes. Emissions are different in higher temperatures. It’s interesting to measure in different climate zones.”
Bringing your experiences into another research area is useful, according to Magnus Gålfalk. It brings new thoughts and ideas. The challenge is to keep up when colleagues talk about their respective areas of expertise. Everyone has their own terminology. This also applies to him as an astronomer.
“My contribution is a lot about developing measurement methods, using somewhat unusual measurement methods and getting the most out of measurement data. There’s a lot of that in astronomy.”
Interest in measurement
He has not left astronomy behind completely. It is still a hobby. At work, he also thinks about whether it would be possible to create more interdisciplinary research collaborations involving astronomy, for example by measuring greenhouse gases using data from telescopes.
At the end of the day, he may not be that concerned with whether he is engaged in astronomy or climate research. What is interesting to him is the measurements themselves that provide knowledge about the world. And unlike astronomers, he can now decide for himself when he wants to go out and take them.
“I’m passionate about measurements of all sorts. And measuring techniques, taking difficult pictures and coming up with new methods,” says Magnus Gålfalk.
Translation: Anneli Mosell